Officials: Missed invitation saved al-Zawahri
PESHAWAR, Pakistan – Al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader was invited to a dinner marking a Muslim festival on the night of the devastating U.S. missile strike in a Pakistani border village, but he failed to show up, Pakistani intelligence officials said Sunday.Ayman al-Zawahri sent aides instead, the officials said, and investigators are trying to establish if any of them were among the at least 17 people killed in the attack, which sparked a second day of anti-U.S. protests across the country Sunday.Some 10,000 people rallied in Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city, chanting “Death to America” and “Stop bombing against innocent people.” Hundreds also protested in Islamabad, Lahore, Multan and Peshawar, burning U.S. flags and demanding U.S. troops leave neighboring Afghanistan.Ghafoor Ahmed, a leader in the coalition of Islamic groups that organized Sunday’s rallies, told demonstrators in Karachi that Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, should resign.”The army cannot defend the country under his leadership,” Ahmed said.Hundreds of riot police, wielding batons and shields, were deployed in Karachi, but the rally ended after an hour with no reports of violence.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.Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other American lawmakers on Sunday defended the airstrike.”This war on terror has no boundaries,” McCain, a former Navy combat pilot who challenged George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, told CBS. “We have to go where these people are, and we have to take them out.”David Almacy, a White House spokesman, declined to comment directly on the airstrike, saying only, “President Musharraf is a valued ally and partner in the war on terror, as is Pakistan.”Attack condemnedPakistan 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.In a sign of tensions over the attack on Damadola village, two top Pakistani officials – one from the military, the other from the civilian administration – said privately Sunday that the government was only informed of the strike after it happened.However, U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he had “every reason to believe” high-ranking officials in the Pakistani government knew in advance.Many in this nation of 150 million people oppose the government’s ties with Washington and there is increasing frustration over a recent series of suspected U.S. attacks along the rugged frontier aimed at militants.Bayh said the problem is the Pakistani government does not control the border region where Osama bin Laden, al-Zawahri and other militants are believed to have been hiding since the U.S.-led military ouster of Afghanistan’s hard-line Taliban regime for hosting al-Qaida.”It’s a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do?” Bayh told CNN. “The Pakistani border is a real problem.”Change of plansTwo Pakistani intelligence officials said Sunday that al-Zawahri, who has a wife from a tribe prominent in the region around the attacked village, had been invited to a dinner in Damadola to mark last week’s Eid al-Adha holiday, but apparently changed his mind.One of the officials said al-Zawahri sent some aides instead and investigators were trying to determine whether any were in the three houses destroyed in the attack.The officials agreed to discuss the situation only if their names were not used, because they are not authorized to speak to journalists. They said their information came from Pakistan’s own security agencies and intelligence shared by the CIA after the attack.The second intelligence official said 12 bodies, including seven foreigners, had been taken from the village, which is about four miles from Afghanistan. He said the bodies were reclaimed by other militants, but another Pakistani official said Saturday that some were taken away for DNA tests.It was not possible to reconcile the conflicting accounts, which reflect widespread confusion over the attack and the refusal of the government to comment publicly on the details of what happened.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.But the civilian Pakistani official said the government had been investigating reports that al-Zawahri had visited Bajur in recent months – a tip gleaned from the interrogation of Abu Farraj al-Libbi, a senior al-Qaida figure arrested in Pakistan in May.Al-Libbi is accused of masterminding two failed assassination attempts on Musharraf in 2003 that killed 17 people. He was interrogated in Pakistan and later handed over to the United States.Thousands of men from Bajur and other nearby tribal areas crossed into Afghanistan to fight against the U.S.-led offensive that toppled the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on America.The governor of the Afghan province across from Bajur said Afghanistan’s government had formed a 1,000-man tribal militia to watch the border and stop Islamic militants from infiltrating.”But the border is so long and so rugged that it’s easy for them to come and go,” Kunar Gov. Assadullah Wafa said.—Associated Press writers Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad, Zarar Khan in Karachi, Daniel Cooney in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Foster Klug in Washington contributed to this report.