Abbottabad/New York: Pakistan’s army threatened on Thursday to reconsider its crucial cooperation with the United States if Washington carried out another unilateral attack like the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In New York, US President Barack Obama met firefighters and visited Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan to offer comfort to a city still scarred by the 11 Sept., 2001, attacks masterminded by bin Laden that killed nearly 3,000 people.
He said the killing of bin Laden by a US commando team in Pakistan on Monday “sent a message around the world, but also sent a message here back home, that when we say we will never forget, we mean what we say.”
But a senior Pakistani security official said US troops killed bin Laden in “cold blood,” fueling a global controversy and straining a relationship that Washington deems key to defeating the al Qaeda movement that bin Laden led.
Seeking to repair those ties, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said in Rome on Thursday that Washington was still anxious to maintain its alliance with Islamabad.
“It is not always an easy relationship,” she said. “But, on the other hand, it is a productive one for both our countries and we are going to continue to cooperate between our governments, our militaries, our law-enforcement agencies, but most importantly between the American and Pakistani people.”
But Pakistan’s army, facing rare criticism at home over the US operation in Abbottabad, a town just an hour’s drive from the capital, said in its first comment since the attack that chief of staff general Ashfaq Kayani had sent a stern warning.
Kayani had “made it clear that any similar action violating the sovereignty of Pakistan will warrant a review on the level of military/intelligence cooperation with the United States,” the army said.
However, the army also said it would conduct an investigation into failures by its intelligence to detect the world’s most wanted man on its own soil.
Americans are questioning how the al Qaeda leader could live for years in comfort in a garrison town near Islamabad. Some call for cutting billions of dollars in US aid.
In a further sign of fractious relations between the allies, senior Pakistani security officials told Reuters US accounts had been misleading in describing a long gun battle at the compound where bin Laden and four others were killed by an elite squad of US Navy SEALs.
After an initial account of a 40-minute firefight, US officials have now been quoted saying only one person fired at the raiding party, and that only briefly as the helicopter-borne assault team arrived.
A US acknowledgment that bin Laden was unarmed when shot in the head—as well as the disposal of his body at sea, a practice rare in Islam—have drawn criticism in the Arab world and Europe, where some have warned of a backlash against the West.
The White House has blamed the “fog of war” for its conflicting accounts. Citing US officials, NBC television said four of the five people killed, including bin Laden himself, were unarmed.
The New York Times quoted officials in the Obama administration as saying bin Laden’s courier fired the only shots against the Americans, in the early stages of the raid, from a guesthouse in the sprawling, high-walled compound.
“I know for a fact that shots were exchanged during this operation,” said one Pentagon official. But one senior Pakistani security official said no shots were fired inside the building where bin Laden was found.
Photographs taken by a Pakistani security official about an hour after the assault show three dead men—not including bin Laden—lying in pools of blood. No weapons could be seen in the closely cropped images obtained by Reuters.
Obama’s visit to New York came nearly 10 years after his predecessor George W. Bush stood bullhorn in hand at the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center, destroyed by hijacked planes, to declare: “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Obama visited a firehouse in Midtown Manhattan that lost 15 members in the attacks, before heading to Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan to lay a wreath and meet with victims’ families.
Obama shook hands with firefighters and told them, “This is a symbolic site of the extraordinary sacrifice that was made on that terrible day almost 10 years ago.”
Friction between Washington and Pakistan, a nuclear-armed Muslim ally in the war in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda, has focused on the role of Pakistan’s top security service, the ISI or Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
With questions swirling about whether incompetence or connivance allowed bin Laden to shelter near a major military academy, Pakistan’s leaders and security officials have defended their roles and commitment to the US alliance.
Foreign secretary Salman Bashir denied the Pakistani forces or ISI aided al Qaeda. “The critique of the ISI is not only unwarranted, it can not be validated,” he said.
He also issued a warning—seemingly directed as much at arch-rival India as to Washington—against intrusions of the kind that saw US troops raid deep inside Pakistan.
A major Islamist party in Pakistan, Jamaat-e-Islami, called for mass protests on Friday against what it called a violation of sovereignty by the US raid. It also urged the government to end support for US battles against militants.
38 Intense Minutes
Washington has repeatedly defended its decision to kill bin Laden, though foreign criticism of its failure to take him alive has not been heard in public from the leaders of its key allies in the battle against militant Islam.
In Rome for talks on aiding Libya’s rebels, Clinton reminded her international audience that bin Laden had been a clear target for the United States since 2001 and that his death did not end the battle against al Qaeda.
She refused to comment on details of the operation, which she had watched unfolding on a live video transmission. “Those were 38 of the most intense minutes,” she said.
Aside from defending its forces from criticism from abroad—US attorney general Eric Holder has called the shooting of bin Laden “an act of national self-defense”—Washington has also had to counter those who question the death altogether.
Obama resisted pressure from aides to release photographs of bin Laden’s body, saying the images could incite violence and be used by militants as a propaganda tool.
“There’s no doubt that bin Laden is dead,” he told CBS television on Wednesday. “There are going be some folks who deny it. The fact of the matter is, you will not see bin Laden walking on this earth again.”