US intel chief: Al Qaeda active, strong in Pakistani hideout

US National Intelligence Director (NID) John Negroponte says that Al Qaeda has found "a secure hideout in Pakistan, from which it is rebuilding its strength." The BBC reports that Mr. Negroponte, who will soon resign as NID chief and become the deputy secretary of state, said Al Qaeda was "strengthening its ties across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe." The strong statement caught Pakistani officials offguard.

The BBC's James Westhead in Washington says that until now the US has not been so specific about where it believes al-Qaeda's leaders are hiding.

Such a claim will be embarrassing for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who Mr. Negroponte described as a key partner in America's war on terror, our correspondent says.

Afghanistan has welcomed the comments. President Hamid Karzai's chief-of-staff, Jawed Ludin, told the BBC that Afghanistan had long maintained that the Islamic militants operated from within Pakistan, and that Mr Negroponte's statement was refreshing in its honesty.

In written testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Negroponte also said "Pakistan is our partner in the war on terror and has captured several Al Qaeda leaders. However, it is also a major source of Islamic extremism."

The Kuwait News Agency reports that Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesperson, Tasnim Aslam, said the US and the international community have "appreciated" the country's efforts to fight terrorism, and that "the focus must always remain on cooperation instead of questionable criticism." She called on Negroponte to acknowledge that Pakistan has done more than "any other country in the world" to fight Al Qaeda.

"It is also a fact that there are Al Qaeda elements active in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, as Mr. Negroponte has said but it would be incorrect to link them to any remnants of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan," she added.

CBS News reports that the US and Pakistan seem to he headed for another "bitter disagreement over the extent to which Al Qaeda has positioned itself in the south Asian country, making it the hub of its activities."

Diplomats based in Islamabad said Negroponte's remarks seemed to underline US frustration over Pakistan in spite of Washington's recognition of the support it has received from Pakistan. Last year, a growing number of suicide attacks in Afghanistan prompted claims from western officials, including US officials, that Pakistan had failed to curb the flow of "Taliban" suspects who allegedly routinely cross over the border with Afghanistan ...

Pakistani officials said Negroponte's remarks appeared to overlook the failure by US and Afghan security troops in curbing militancy in Afghanistan.

"It's the failure of the US in tackling militant movements which continue to keep groups like Al Qaeda alive," said a Pakistani government official who asked not to be named. "Rather than pointing fingers at Pakistan, the Americans should ask themselves, why is it that they have not been able to curb this problem, five years after the war on terror was launched?"

The Washington Post reports that Negroponte also said that Hizbullah was also becoming "increasingly worrisome," especially after its recent conflcit with Israel.

"As a result of last summer's hostilities, Hizbullah's self-confidence and hostility toward the United States as a supporter of Israel could cause the group to increase its contingency planning against United States interests," Negroponte told the Senate Intelligence Committee ...

Hizbullah has a global fundraising network, but has not directly attacked US interests in years. It was responsible for the 1983 bombings of the US Embassy and the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon, that killed hundreds of American servicemen. The group's Saudi wing, in coordination with the larger Lebanese Hizbullah, is blamed for the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996.

In his syndicated column, Robert Novak writes that Negroponte's departure as the NID after less than two years on the job, has many US senators concerned. Novak writes that Negroponte explained to one GOP senator that he did not want to leave, but that the White House prevailed upon him because of concern about the state of affairs at the department of state.

Republicans in Congress, who do not want to be quoted, tell me the State Department under Secretary Condoleezza Rice is a mess. That comes at a time when the US global position is precarious. While attention focuses on Iraq, American diplomacy is being tested worldwide – in Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Korea and Sudan. The judgment by thoughtful Republicans is that Rice has failed to manage that endeavor.

The left-of-center radio show Democracy Now! looks at the man chosen by President Bush to replace Negroponte, Vice-Admiral Mike McConnell, and argues that he has been "a leading figure in outsourcing US intelligence operations to private industry." Vice-Admiral McConnell is a former director of the National Security Agency and the current director of defense programs at Booz Allen – one of the nation's biggest defense and intelligence contractors.

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