WASHINGTON, Feb 27: Pakistan once again was on the centre of the US presidential debate with Barack Obama repeating his threat to bomb ‘actionable’ terrorist targets inside the country while his main rival Hillary Clinton called it an unwise move.

During a key debate before Tuesday’s do-or-die nomination contests in Ohio and Texas, Mr Obama also hinted that a recent US air strike at an Al Qaeda target in North Waziristan forced Pakistan to be more cooperative in the war against terror.

Mrs Clinton, a New York senator, started the controversy when she questioned Mr Obama’s stand on foreign policy issues, particularly Pakistan, during a Wednesday night debate in Ohio.

Mr Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois and now a Democratic frontrunner in the 2008 presidential race, maintained his tough stance, first revealed in an earlier debate, that if elected he will hunt down terror outfits, including in places like Pakistan.

At the same time, Mr Obama clarified that he never said he would “bomb” Pakistan but only act in the face of actionable intelligence about terrorist targets and if Islamabad is unable or unwilling to take action.

Senator Clinton, who has sought to paint Mr Obama as too inexperienced to be the commander-in-chief of world’s only superpower, has questioned the wisdom of her rival’s threat to Pakistan at several recent debates.

“Last summer, he basically threatened to bomb Pakistan, which I don’t think was a particularly wise position to take,” Mrs Clinton said.

“I have long advocated a much tougher approach to Musharraf and to Pakistan and have pushed the White House to do that,” she said.

The former first lady argued that she has a wider breadth of foreign policy experience that makes her more qualified to face off against presumptive Republican nominee John McCain in the November 4 general election.

“I will have a much better case to make on a range of the issues that, really, America must confront going forward, and will be able to hold my own and make the case for a change in policy that will be better for our country,” she said.

Senator Obama challenged her arguments, saying that she was building her case on wrong assumptions.

“I never said I would bomb Pakistan. What I said was that if we have actionable intelligence against (Osama) bin Laden or other key Al Qaeda officials and Pakistan is unwilling or unable to strike against them, we should,” he said.

“And just several days ago, in fact, this administration did exactly that and took out the third-ranking Al Qaeda official (Abu Laith al-Libi),” he said, adding President Pervez Musharraf was now indicating that he would generally be “more cooperative in some of these efforts.” “We don’t know how the new legislature in Pakistan will respond. But the fact is, it was the right strategy,” he added.

“I always reserve the right for the president...to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if Al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad. So that is true, I think, not just in Iraq, but that’s true in other places. That’s part of my argument with respect to Pakistan,” he maintained.


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