WASHINGTON, July 2: America’s top military official said on Wednesday that he has all the authority he needed for targeting senior Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas but refused to say if US troops were also allowed to operate inside the Pakistani territory.

“I’m comfortable, as the military leader, that I have all the authorities I need,” said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked if he had the authority to target key terrorist leaders hiding in Fata.

“Does that authority include operating in an effort to go after Taliban or Al Qaeda leadership without Pakistani permission?” he was asked again.

“I’m not going to get into the specifics of it,” said the admiral.

Earlier on Wednesday, The Washington Times reported that the United States has an agreement with President Pervez Musharraf to launch direct attacks targeting elusive Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistani territory without prior permission from Islamabad.

CIA-operated Predator drones may strike Bin Laden’s hideout without taking permission beforehand from Islamabad if the US locates him in the tribal areas, the newspaper reported quoting a source “close to the arrangement.”

Diplomatic sources in Washington, however, told Dawn that neither President Musharraf nor the elected government could have made such an arrangement.

“Our forces are capable of dealing with any situation. We do not need outside forces to do that for us,” said Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistan Embassy, while commenting on the report. “If they share information with us, we will take action.”

But other sources said that the Pakistanis know if the Americans have ‘actionable information’ about Bin Laden, Mullah Omar or any other key leader, they will not wait for Islamabad’s permission to strike.

“They will attack the target, with or without Islamabad’s permission,” said one diplomatic source.

According to The Washington Times, President Musharraf granted the right to launch attacks to the US when Pakistan joined the war against terrorism in 2001.

The US has options for sending special

operations teams into Pakistan if Osama’s exact location is determined, but US military officials told the Times it would be the Predator, not boots on the ground, that would be dispatched to kill the Al Qaeda leader.

This is because a Predator could be airborne -- or redirected in flight -- in a matter of minutes. In contrast, special operations forces in Afghanistan would have to be assembled, briefed on the mission and then dispatched by helicopter -- a time-consuming and risky process, the report said.

By not requesting Pakistan’s approval first, the US would avoid the risk of breaching operational security. Washington still harbours suspicions about Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency, which helped establish pro-Al Qaeda-Taliban rule in Afghanistan, the daily said.

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