U.S. says Pakistani spies forewarn al Qaeda allies

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The United States has accused members of Pakistan’s main spy agency of tipping off al Qaeda-linked militants before U.S. missile attacks on targets in Pakistani tribal lands, Pakistan’s defense minister said.

defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar openly acknowledged American mistrust of Pakistan’s main military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in remarks aired on Thursday on Pakistani television.

“They think that there are some elements in the ISI at some level that when the government of Pakistan is informed of targets, then leak it to them (militants) at some level,” Mukhtar told Geo in Washington, having accompanied Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on a maiden visit to the United States.

“This is an issue on which they were a bit annoyed.”

The disclosure of American displeasure by a minister in the four-month-old civilian government of American could embarrass President Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani military, and reawaken concern about the stability of the nuclear armed state.

The U.S. no longer gives Pakistan advance notice when it targets militants in tribal areas.

The News, a Pakistani daily from the same media group as Geo, reported that Bush had asked who was controlling the ISI.

The ISI is the main intelligence arm of the military, which directs its operations, though under the law it reports to the prime minister.

Pakistan’s security apparatus consists of the ISI, and Military Intelligence, which deals solely with military matters, and their civilian cousins, the Intelligence Bureau, Federal Investigation Agency, and the police Special Branch.

Pakistan is going through a transition to civilian rule after 8 years of military-led government, and the new leaders want to streamline reporting lines.

Last Saturday the government issued a decree saying the ISI and the Intelligence Bureau would be placed under the Interior Ministry, but backtracked the next day with a clarification that raised doubts in sections of the media about its own competence.

The coalition government has still to find its feet, and is fraught with internal tensions while also dealing with a economic and energy crisis, and analysts say it would be unwise to get into a confrontation with the military.

Past civilian rulers, including Nawaz Sharif and the late Benazir Bhutto, appointed men of their choice as head of ISI, but each time it led to differences with the army, which has led the Muslim nation for more than half the 61 years since it was carved out of the partition of India.

U.S. ally Musharraf stepped down as army chief last November, and promoted General Ashfaq Kayani, who had been head of the ISI, to succeed himself, and also chose the current ISI chief, Lieutenant-General Nadeem Taj.

After abandoning support for the Taliban government in Afghanistan after al Qaeda’s September 11, 2001 attacks on U.S. cities, Musharraf ordered a clear out of the ISI’s Afghan desk dealing with the Islamist militia, but has defend the agency from periodic criticism that it retains links.

Gilani, whose Pakistan People’s Party has its own history of mistrust with the army, spoke up for the ISI calling it a “great institution” and saying he found reports that some members of the ISI were sympathetic to the militants to be unbelievable.

On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that a top Central Intelligence Agency official confronted Pakistani officials earlier this month with evidence of ISI ties to militants, and involvement in a suicide car bomb attack outside the Indian embassy in Kabul that killed 58 people, including two senior Indian diplomats.

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