Bush offers no criticism of Pakistan's effort to capture bin Laden

Saturday, December 4th 2004, 10:36 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush offered no criticism Saturday of Pakistan's role in the still-unsuccessful hunt for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, even though Pakistan's army is pulling back from the region where the terrorist mastermind is believed hiding.

After an Oval Office meeting with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Bush said, ``His army has been incredibly active and very brave ... flushing out an enemy that though they had found safe haven.''

Bush characterized Musharraf as ``a determined leader to bring to justice not only people like Osama bin Laden but to bring to justice those would inflict harm and pain on his own people. ... I am very pleased with his efforts.''

Pakistan's army said last month it was withdrawing hundreds of troops from the tense tribal region near Afghanistan. The decision to pull back from the South Waziristan area come after several military operations by thousands of troops against remnants of bin Laden's al-Qaida organization and its supporters in recent months.

Musharraf, who visited Bush to congratulate him for winning a second term, got what he most wanted _ a strong public commitment from Bush to take a more active role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Musharraf has said repeatedly _ and did so again by Bush's side _ that resolving that dispute is essential to Muslims and to the global fight against terrorism.

Settling the Mideast conflict is ``the most important issue ... in the interest of peace in the world,'' Musharraf said.

Bush said he assured the Pakistani leader ``there is an opportunity at hand to work toward development of a Palestinian state and peace in the Middle East.'' Bush added, ``I told him this would be a priority of my administration.''

The architect of the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States, bin Laden has been on the run since U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and drove out the Taliban rulers who harbored al-Qaida militants.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 Pakistani forces were deployed in a three-pronged offensive in the eastern reaches of the rugged region last month. U.S. military forces remain largely on the Afghanistan side in hopes of capturing or killing any al-Qaida operatives crossing the border.

Among the U.S. officials who participated in the meeting were Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and Powell's replacement at the State Department, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

Also raised during the 45-minute discussion was Pakistan's relationship with neighboring India, the world's largest democracy. The two countries are declared nuclear powers.

Neither Bush nor Musharraf publicly mentioned Washington's concerns over Musharraf's backtracking on a pledge to relinquish his military post.

The general, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999, had pledged in December 2003 to relinquish his army position as part of a commitment to civilian rule. His government pushed through a law this year, however, to allow him to keep the separate role. That caused some quiet unease that Pakistan was not progressing toward democracy as had been hoped.

``We make our views very clear publicly and privately when it comes to our support for democracy and moving in that direction,'' White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in advance of the meeting. ``And there's some steps that Pakistan has taken. And we continue to talk to them about those issues.''

Despite differences, nothing has diminished Washington's view of Pakistan as a crucial ally in the terrorism fight. In particular, Bush repeatedly cites Pakistan's capture of al-Qaida suspects, several of whom have been handed over to U.S. officials.

U.S. officials are always mindful of the need to avoid upsetting Pakistan's internal politics. Radical Islamic groups condemn Musharraf for backing the U.S.-led forces that ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and routed the al-Qaida fighters the Taliban had sheltered.

Reports ahead of Saturday's meeting raised the prospect of an impending deal for the United States to sell military surveillance airplanes, anti-tank missiles and other weapons worth more than $1 billion to Pakistan. McClellan said no announcement was imminent.

Musharraf was meeting separately with Powell later Saturday.