Senators uphold airstrike inside Pakistan

Associated Press
Published January 16, 2006

WASHINGTON - Senators on Sunday defended a purported CIA airstrike that Pakistani officials said killed at least 17 people in a village near the border with Afghanistan but not the reported target, al-Qaida's No. 2 leader.

"We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again" in going after Ayman al-Zawahri, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

McCain said it is a "cautionary tale" about the fate of the terrorist network's leaders that the United States "didn't take them out years ago." He said the United States must hunt them down wherever they are hiding.

"We have to do what we think is necessary to take out al-Qaida, particularly the top operatives. This guy has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately," McCain said on CBS's Face the Nation .

Pakistani officials have strongly condemned the strike. The White House declined to comment on the attacks Sunday, except to praise President Gen. Pervez Musharraf as well as Pakistan as "a valued ally on the war on terror." Officials at several U.S. agencies have not immediately provided details about the attack.

Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets Sunday to rage for a second day against the purported U.S. attack. Some 10,000 people demonstrated in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, chanting "Death to America" and "Stop bombing against innocent people." Hundreds also rallied in Islamabad, Lahore, Multan and Peshawar, burning U.S. flags. Protesters demanded an end to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.

On Saturday, about 8,000 tribesmen protested in a town near the attacked village, Damadola, and a mob set fire to the office of a U.S.-backed aid agency in another nearby hamlet.

Pakistan says it does not allow American forces on its soil to attack or hunt militants. On Saturday, the government condemned the attack and lodged a diplomatic protest, saying it had killed innocent civilians.

Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said the real problem is that the U.S.-allied Pakistani government does not control the region along the mountainous border with Afghanistan, where the attack occurred. Many al-Qaida and Taliban combatants are thought to have taken refuge there.

"It's a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do?" Bayh told CNN's Late Edition . "It's like the wild, wild West out there. The Pakistani border is a real problem."

Residents of Damadola, which is in the tribal region of Bajur, insisted no militants were staying in the village and all the dead were local people.

Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., said strikes are necessary to get at al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan who are directing anti-American violence in Iraq. "My information is that this strike was clearly justified by the intelligence," Lott said.

Both Bayh and Lott serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Bayh said the CIA had been watching the area for several days and that the agency would not have conducted such an operation without extraordinarily high levels of intelligence.

Bayh said he has "every reason to believe" that high-ranking officials in the Pakistani government were told in advance of the strike.