WASHINGTON, Jan 6: Pakistan continues to figure prominently in US presidential debates with one candidate — Hillary Clinton — suggesting a joint American and British team to look after the country’s nuclear weapons while others threatening to send troops into the tribal areas to chase Al Qaeda militants.

“I would try to get (President Pervez) Musharraf to share the security responsibility of the nuclear weapons with a delegation from the United States and, perhaps, Great Britain, so that there is some fail-safe,” said Senator Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate in New Hampshire on Saturday evening.

On Sunday, leading Democrat Presidential hopefuls advocated pursuing Al Qaeda militants inside Pakistan, even without Islamabad’s permission, if the United States had “actionable intelligence.”

Senator Barack Obama, who won the Democratic caucus in Iowa last week, said that the United States should “do everything in our power to push and cooperate with the Pakistani government in taking on Al Qaeda.”

But if the Pakistanis “could not or would not do so, and we had actionable intelligence, then I would strike.”

Former Senator John Edwards, who came second in Iowa and is looking well placed in New Hampshire, said if as president he knew where terror mastermind Osama bin Laden was, “I would go get him, period.”

Clinton did strike a word of caution saying any actionable intelligence that would lead to a strike inside Pakistan’s territory must be given the “most careful consideration” and pointed to tension between India and Pakistan.

“When the missiles have been launched, the Pakistani government has to know they’re on the way. Because one of the problems is the inherent paranoia about India, so that we’ve got to have a plan to try to make sure we don’t ignite some kind of reaction,” the New York Democrat said.

Governor Bill Richardson, however, opposed sending troops into Pakistan. “The last thing we need in the Muslim world is another action like Iraq, which is going to inflame the Muslim world in a horrendous way.”

On the nuclear issue, Ms Clinton noted that at present Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal is considered secure, “but there isn’t any guarantee, especially given the political turmoil going on inside Pakistan.”

Mr Edwards appeared more paranoid than others on the nuclear issue as well. He described Pakistan as a country with an “unstable leader” and a “serious and violently radical element” that could, under some circumstances, take over the government.

“If they did, they would have control of a nuclear weapon. They could either use it, or they could turn it over to a terrorist organisation to be used against America or some of our allies,” he warned.

Senator Obama did not single out Pakistan on the nuclear issue. Instead, he pledged to rebuild a nuclear non-proliferation strategy, if elected. “It would not cost us that much, for example, and would take about four years for us to lock down the loose nuclear weapons that are still floating out there,” he said.

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