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ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States was hoping on Tuesday to question the detained three wives of Osama bin Laden although Pakistani officials played down the possibility of any speedy access, saying no decision had been made.
U.S. investigators, who have been sifting through a huge stash of material seized on May 2 after U.S. special forces killed bin Laden in his Pakistani hideout, want to question his wives as they seek to trace his movements and his network.
A Pakistani decision to allow U.S. investigators to question the women could begin to stabilize relations between the allies that have been severely strained by the killing of the al Qaeda leader.
A U.S. official said in Washington on Monday Pakistan appeared ready to grant access to the wives who were detained by Pakistani authorities at bin Laden's compound after the raid.
But Pakistan's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said it had received no U.S. request while other officials said no decision had been taken.
"It's too early to even think about it," said a senior government official, adding that Pakistani investigators had yet to finish their own questioning.
Pakistan says the wives, one from Yemen and two from Saudi Arabia, and their children, will be repatriated. Pakistan was making contacts with their countries but they had yet to say they would take them, the Pakistani official said.
Bin Laden was shot dead in a top-secret raid in the northern Pakistani town of Abbottabad to the embarrassment of Pakistan which has for years denied the world's most wanted man was on its soil.
Pakistan said bin Laden's death was an important step in the fight against militancy but it was angered that it was not informed about it and that U.S. forces violated its sovereignty when they swooped in on helicopters from Afghanistan.
The government is under pressure to explain how the al Qaeda leader was found in the garrison town, a short distance from the
main military academy.
But Pakistani cooperation is crucial to combating Islamist militants and to bringing stability to Afghanistan and the U.S. administration has been keen to contain the fallout.
"We're in high-level consultations with Pakistani officials" about bin Laden's wives and all other issues related to the raid, a senior U.S. administration official said. "We are committed to maintaining our cooperative relationship."
Nevertheless, bin Laden's discovery has deepened suspicion that Pakistan's pervasive Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, which has a long history of contacts with militants, may have had ties with the al Qaeda leader, or that some of its agents did.
U.S. legislators have been asking tough questions, with some calling for a cut in billions of dollars of U.S. aid to the nuclear-armed Muslim country.
But the United States has stopped short of accusing Pakistan of providing shelter to bin Laden.
"We believe it is very important to maintain a cooperative relationship with Pakistan, precisely because it's in our national security interests to do so," White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Western governments had no alternative to cooperating with Pakistan in the fight against Islamic militants.
"If we are to assure long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan and beyond, then we need positive engagement with Pakistan," Rasmussen told the World Affairs Council in Atlanta on Monday.
In a reminder of Pakistan's own struggle against al Qaeda-linked militants, a bomb outside a court in the northwestern town of Nowshera killed a policewoman.
Later, a U.S. drone aircraft fired at a vehicle in the South Waziristan region on the Afghan border, killing three militants, Pakistani security officials said.
The attacks by the U.S. aircraft are another irritant in Pakistan's relations with the United States.
Even before the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden, relations were at a low ebb after a string of disputes over issues including a big U.S. drone attack in March and CIA contractor Raymond Davis, who shot dead two Pakistanis in January.
Potentially adding to the tension, a Pakistani TV channel and a newspaper have published what they said was the name of the undercover CIA station chief in Islamabad.
U.S. officials said the name disclosed in Pakistani media was wrong and the station chief would remain at his post.
They said they believe the leak was a calculated attempt to divert attention from U.S. demands for explanations of how bin Laden could have hidden for years in Pakistan.
Last year, after the chief of the Pakistani ISI was named in a U.S. civil case over attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai, the then-head of the CIA's Islamabad station was named by Pakistani media and forced to leave the country.
Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, in his first major address since bin Laden's killing, rejected suggestions of incompetence or even complicity in hiding the al Qaeda leader.
"Allegations of complicity or incompetence are absurd," Gilani told parliament on Monday, saying it was disingenuous for anyone to accuse Pakistan of "being in cahoots" with al Qaeda.
Pakistan's main opposition party has called on Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari to resign over the breach of sovereignty by U.S. special forces.
Pakistan has launched its own investigation and the military is due to brief parliament in a closed session on Friday.
The Pakistani government and military have also faced criticism at home for the failure to stop the violation of sovereignty by the U.S. commando team.
Analysts have said the killing of bin Laden presented the civilian government with an opportunity to exert itself over the powerful military, but it looked unlikely to seize it.
"This is the time parliament can assert itself as the military is under pressure," Khalid Muneer, a retired colonel, told a meeting organised by a civil society group that works to strengthen democracy.
"I think you may not have such a great chance again."
Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie