ABBOTTABAD/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Pakistan’s army threatened on Thursday to reconsider its anti-terrorism cooperation with the United States if Washington carried out another unilateral attack like the killing of Osama bin Laden.
In New York, U.S. President Barack Obama met firefighters and visited Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan to offer comfort to a city still scarred by the September 11, 2001, attacks masterminded by bin Laden that killed nearly 3,000 people.
He said the killing of bin Laden by a U.S. 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 U.S. troops killed bin Laden in “cold blood,” straining a relationship that Washington deems vital to defeating the al Qaeda movement that bin Laden led and winning its war in neighbouring Afghanistan.
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 U.S. raid. It also urged the government to end support for U.S. battles against militants.
Seeking to repair ties, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Rome on Thursday that Washington was still anxious to maintain its alliance with Islamabad.
The Pakistani army and spy agency have supplied intelligence to the United States, arrested al Qaeda figures and taken on militants in areas bordering Afghanistan.
“It is not always an easy relationship,” Clinton 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 Pakistan’s army, facing rare criticism at home over the U.S. 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 in its own backyard.
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 U.S. aid.
In a further sign of fractious relations between the allies, senior Pakistani security officials told Reuters U.S. 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 U.S. Navy SEALs.
After an initial account of a 40-minute firefight, U.S. 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 U.S. acknowledgment that bin Laden was unarmed when shot in the head — as well as the sea burial of his body, a rare practice 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 changing accounts. Citing U.S. officials, NBC television said bin Laden and three of the four others killed 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 at the SEALs inside the building where bin Laden was found.
The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Republican, Saxby Chambliss, offered new details. He said the SEALs shot at, but missed, bin Laden as he looked out of a third-floor room. “He went back in the room, and that’s when the SEALs rushed in and shot him the first time,” Chambliss told National Journal in an interview.
Obama visited New York to say he had made good on a 10-year-old promise by his predecessor George W. Bush, who declared at the smouldering wreckage of the World Trade Centre three days after the September 11 attacks: “The people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Obama went to a firehouse that lost 15 members in the attacks, before heading to Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan to lay a wreath and meet with victims’ families.
He 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.”
“We have been waiting for this for 10 years. It puts a little more American pride in people,” said Al Fiammetta, 57, a safety engineer who said he had cleared debris at Ground Zero.
New York City resident Caroline Epner, 32, said: “It’s OK for him (Obama) to take a victory lap.”
Friction between Washington and Pakistan has focussed on the role of Pakistan’s top security service, the ISI or Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir denied Pakistani forces or the ISI aided al Qaeda. “The critique of the ISI is not only unwarranted, it cannot be validated,” he said.
Lobbyists for Pakistan in Washington have launched an intense campaign on Capitol Hill to counter accusations that Islamabad deliberately gave refuge to bin Laden.
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.
Her call for continuing good ties with Islamabad was echoed in Washington by Republican House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who said it was “not the time to back away from Pakistan.”
Two mid-level al Qaeda leaders were killed in Yemen on Thursday in a remote province where al Qaeda is active, the news service of the Yemeni defence ministry said, and residents said they saw a drone in the air at the time. The United States is known to operate drones in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.
In Washington, a top U.S. Marine Corps general said on Thursday the raid that killed bin Laden could deal a significant blow to the Afghan Taliban insurgency.
Major General Richard Mills said the Navy SEALs had carted away information likely to provide an intelligence bonanza. “I think it will identify people who are providing ... material support to the insurgency in Afghanistan,” he said.