WASHINGTON, Aug 5: Top Republican 2008 White House hopefuls on Sunday reserved the right to launch US strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan, and insisted on victory in Iraq, in a feisty fourth televised debate.

Accusing Democrats of weakness on the war on terror, some in the field also subtly distanced themselves from Republican President George W. Bush, as the race hit a new level of intensity five months before first contests.

Rivals Mitt Romney and New York’s ex-mayor Rudolph Giuliani declined in the debate in Des Moines, Iowa, to rule out an incursion into remote tribal areas where Al Qaeda is holed up, according to US intelligence estimates.

“I would take that action if I thought there was no other way to crush Al Qaeda, no other way to crush the Taliban, and no other way to be able to capture bin Laden,” said former New York mayor Giuliani.

But Giuliani, who leads nationwide Republican polls, said he hoped to get results by exerting more pressure on Islamabad to crack down on Al Qaeda and the Taliban close to the Afghan border.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, who leads in several key early voting states, said Washington was right to bolster President Pervez Musharraf and should retain military options but keep the same “quiet.” Democratic candidate Senator Barack Obama came under fire, after saying last week he would be ready to send troops to Pakistani tribal areas in search of Osama.

“It’s wrong for a person running for the president of the United States to get on TV and say, ‘We’re going to go into your country unilaterally’,” said Romney, who also criticised Obama’s professed willingness to talk to leaders of Iran and North Korea.

“He’s gone from Jane Fonda to Dr Strangelove in one week,” he said, referring to the anti-war activist and Hollywood star, and the mad scientist in the 1964 satirical movie about nuclear warfare.Senator John McCain, the one-time Republican front-runner now in a campaign free-fall, also rebuked Obama. “It’s naive to say we’re going to attack Pakistan without thinking it through. What if Musharraf were removed from power? What if a radical Islamic government were to take place because we triggered it with an attack?”—AFP