Obama widens Pak strikes - Attacks target Mehsud camps

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By MARK MAZZETTI AND DAVID E. SANGER NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE in Washington
  • Published 21.02.09
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Washington, Feb. 21: With two missile strikes over the past week, the Obama administration has expanded the covert war run by the CIA inside Pakistan, attacking a militant network seeking to topple the Pakistani government.

The missile strikes on training camps run by Baitullah Mehsud represent a broadening of the American campaign inside Pakistan, which has been largely carried out by drone aircraft.

Under President Bush, the US frequently attacked militants from al Qaida and the Taliban involved in cross-border attacks into Afghanistan, but had stopped short of raids aimed at Mehsud and his followers, who have played less of a direct role in attacks on American troops.

The strikes are another sign that President Obama is continuing, and in some cases extending, Bush administration policy in using American spy agencies against terrorism suspects in Pakistan, as he had promised to do during his presidential campaign.

At the same time, Obama has begun to scale back some of the Bush policies on the detention and interrogation of terrorism suspects, which he has criticised as counterproductive.

Mehsud was identified early last year by both American and Pakistani officials as the man who had orchestrated the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Minister and the wife of Pakistan’s current President, Asif Ali Zardari. Bush included Mehsud’s name in a classified list of militant leaders whom the CIA and American commandos were authorised to capture or kill.

It is unclear why the Obama administration decided to carry out the attacks, which American and Pakistani officials said occurred last Saturday and again on Monday, hitting camps run by Mehsud’s network. The Saturday strike was aimed specifically at Mehsud, but he was not killed, according to Pakistani and American officials.

The Monday strike, officials say, was aimed at a camp run by Hakeem Ullah Mehsud, a top aide to the militant. By striking at the Mehsud network, the US may be seeking to demonstrate to Zardari that the new administration is willing to go after the insurgents of greatest concern to the Pakistani leader.

But American officials may also be prompted by growing concern that the militant attacks are increasingly putting the civilian government of Pakistan at risk. For months, Pakistani military and intelligence officials have complained about Washington’s refusal to strike at Baitullah Mehsud, even while CIA drones struck at Qaida figures and leaders of the network run by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a militant leader believed responsible for a campaign of violence against American troops in Afghanistan.

According to one senior Pakistani official, Pakistan’s intelligence service on two occasions in recent months gave the US detailed intelligence about Mehsud’s whereabouts.