WASHINGTON Pakistan now seems ready to allow the United States to interview the wives of Osama bin Laden who were with the al Qaeda leader when he was killed last week, a U.S. official familiar with the matter said on Monday.
The three wives and several children were among 15 or 16 people taken into custody by Pakistani forces after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos secretly flew into the country, killed bin Laden at a compound in Abbottabad and spirited away his body for burial at sea, said the security official.
"The Pakistanis now appear willing to grant access. Hopefully they'll carry through on the signals they're sending," the official said.
There was no immediate comment from the White House.
Pakistan is a vital ally to Washington in the war against Islamist militants in neighboring Afghanistan but relations already were rocky over U.S. drone strikes against insurgents in border regions, differences about priorities and U.S. espionage in the nuclear-armed Muslim country.
Prickly ties between the Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan's main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), have worsened with the revelation that bin Laden lived for five years in Abbottabad, home to Pakistan's main military academy and not far from the capital Islamabad.
The CIA has no intention of bringing home its chief operative in Pakistan despite an apparent attempt by Pakistani media to unmask his identity, U.S. officials said on Monday.
While the media reports apparently were inaccurate, U.S. officials said they believe the leak was a calculated attempt to divert attention from demands for explanations of how bin Laden could have hidden for years in such a prominent place.
U.S. officials suspect the attempted outing of the CIA station chief in Islamabad -- the second incident of its kind in six months -- was the work of someone in the Pakistani government or the ISI.
The Obama administration has demanded access to ISI operatives and bin Laden's wives to try to map out al Qaeda's network.
'A TRUE PRO'
A private Pakistani TV network and a newspaper published what they said was the real name of the top CIA operative.
Two U.S. officials familiar with dealings between Washington and Islamabad said the name the TV channel aired was wrong and that the real station chief would remain.
"The current CIA station chief is a true pro, someone who knows how to work well with foreign partners and is looking to strengthen cooperation with Pakistani intelligence," one of the U.S. officials said.
In December, the man then serving as the CIA's station chief left Pakistan after his name appeared in local media accusing him of complicity in U.S. missile attacks in which civilians were killed.
U.S. officials said they believe the exposure of that station chief was deliberate retaliation by elements of ISI who were upset their agency and some of its officers had been named as defendants in a lawsuit filed in a U.S. court.
It was filed by the families of Americans killed by Pakistani militants in attacks on a Jewish center and other civilian targets in Mumbai, India, in November 2008.
Allegations about ISI's alleged relationship with the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based group accused of carrying out the Mumbai attack, are expected to be aired at the trial in Chicago this month of a businessman accused by U.S. authorities of involvement with the militant group.
(Editing by Warren Strobel and John O'Callaghan)