Sympathy for al-Qaida Surges in Pakistan

Jan 22, 2006

By RIAZ KHAN
Associated Press Writer

DAMADOLA, Pakistan

Sympathy for al-Qaida has surged after a U.S. airstrike devastated this remote mountain hamlet in a region sometimes as hostile toward the Pakistani government as it is to the United States.

A week after the attack, villagers insist no members of the terror network were anywhere near the border village when it was hit. But thousands of protesters flooded a nearby town chanting, "Long live Osama bin Laden!"

Pakistan's army, in charge of hunting militants, was nowhere to be seen.

The rally was the latest in a series of demonstrations across Pakistan against the Jan. 13 attack, which apparently targeted but missed al-Qaida's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri.

The military still mans numerous checkpoints in the area, but it appears to be keeping a low profile so it will not inflame villagers still seething over the deaths of 13 civilians, including women and children, in the attack.

Pakistani intelligence officials believe that four top al-Qaida operatives may have also been killed in the strike including al-Qaida's master bomb maker, Midhat Mursi, who has a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head.

The men had gathered for dinner on the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha to plan attacks for early this year in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a senior Pakistani intelligence official said.

"This attack has increased our hatred for Americans because they are killing innocent women and children," said Zakir Ullah, one of 5,000 demonstrators in Inayat Qala, a market town about three miles from Damadola.

"We support jihad (holy war). Jihad is the duty of every Muslim," he said.

The assault has caused friction between Islamabad and Washington and widespread outrage in this Islamic nation of 150 million, but few are as angry as the people who live in the virtually lawless tribal region that borders Afghanistan. The area is a hotbed of Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers _ and a possible sanctuary for bin Laden himself.

Damadola residents deny any links to the militants.

"We don't have anything to do with al-Qaida, and it was a cruel act of the Americans to attack my house without reason," said Bacha Khan, a flour mill worker whose house was among the three destroyed.

A relative of Faqir Mohammed, a pro-Taliban cleric who intelligence officials believe hid the bodies of the four suspected al-Qaida militants killed in the attack to prevent their identification, was arrested Sunday in Damadola, a security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Pakistani authorities say they are looking for fighters who might have survived the attack, but they have not visibly stepped up maneuvers in the area.

While the military has about 70,000 soldiers along the border with Afghanistan, an Associated Press reporter who has visited Damadola three times since the attack has not seen a single uniformed soldier there.

Army spokesman Brigadier Shahjehan Ali Khan said there has been no change in the military's policy of fighting terrorism.

"Whenever we get a tip-off, we always conduct operations," he said.

Khan could not estimate how many militants are hiding among the border region's 3.2 million residents. Officials in the past have said hundreds of Arab, Central Asian and Afghan fighters are among them.

Outrage at the United States and at the government of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf for backing Washington's war on terrorism has reached its highest pitch since the U.S. ousted Afghanistan's Taliban regime after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on America.

Back then, a local cleric in Bajur, the region surrounding Damadola, rallied 8,000 villagers to fight with the Taliban against U.S.-led forces.

Bajur and Afghanistan's neighboring Kunar region have since served as hideouts because of their rugged mountains _ and the sympathies of residents. Many are Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the Taliban.

The Jan. 13 attack was believed to have been launched by a Predator drone from Afghanistan, where some 20,000 U.S. troops are based. Pakistan does not allow U.S. forces to pursue militants across the border or launch strikes without permission. Government officials have said they were not informed ahead of time.

Many of Sunday's protesters called for Musharraf's resignation.

"As a president he has failed to protect the people and as chief of the army staff he has failed to protect the frontiers," said Maulana Mohammed Sadiq, a lawmaker in the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, which helped organize the rallies.

In a show of solidarity, the opposition Jamaat Islami, or Islamic Party, marshaled 50 volunteers Sunday to help the village rebuild.

Taliban-style radicals are gaining strength along Pakistan's border partly because they intimidate anyone who disagrees, said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani general.

The military often relies on tribal justice to turn people over and avoids large-scale operations that could cause civilian casualties, he said.

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Associated Press writer Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad contributed to this report.