(Adds comments about bin Laden, paragraphs 13-15)
By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON, Nov 13 (Reuters) - U.S. pressure on al Qaeda near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan has put the group "off balance," but the region remains the biggest terrorism threat to the United States, the CIA’s chief said on Thursday.
Agency Director Michael Hayden also told a Washington think tank he and the head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, Lt.-Gen. Ahmed Shujaa Pasha, shared in a meeting last month common views on how to contain the militant threat.
This was despite heated Pakistani protests over U.S. military strikes inside Pakistan aimed at stopping al Qaeda and Taliban cross-border attacks in Afghanistan.
"There’s a lot more commonality on how the threat should be dealt with than many people seem to assume," Hayden told the Atlantic Council of the United States.
There may be Taliban elements the United States could talk to, he said, to fracture its alliance with al Qaeda — a view also expressed by advisers to President-elect Barack Obama.
The United States in recent months has stepped up drone-carried missile strikes against militants inside Pakistan, and in September launched a commando ground attack across the border.
Washington has shrugged off protests from Pakistan, but some experts fear the raid may have undermined Pakistan’s fragile democracy and cooperation with the United States.
Hayden, without acknowledging the strikes or the U.S. role in them, said several veteran al Qaeda fighters and commanders had died over the past year, "by violence or natural causes."
‘FEELING SOME HEAT’
This has shaken al Qaeda’s sense of security, he said. "When we and our allies take terrorists like this off the battlefield ... those that remain are feeling some heat," Hayden said.
"We force them to spend more time and resources on self-preservation. And that distracts them ... from laying the groundwork for the next attack. We keep al Qaeda off balance."
Still, he said, the border region remained the base of al Qaeda’s leadership, which had developed a more durable structure and a deep reserve of skilled operatives.
"Al Qaeda operating from its safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas remains the most clear and present danger to the safety of the United States," Hayden said.
The hunt for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden "is very much at the top of CIA’s priority list," Hayden said.
"Because of his iconic stature, his death or capture clearly would have a significant impact on the confidence of his followers," he said.
Hayden said it was unclear whether al Qaeda will remain united after losing bin Laden, who now appears isolated from the group’s day-to-day operations and is spending significant energy on his own security.
The United States has been frustrated by Pakistan’s inability to eliminate the militants, but Hayden said it deserved credit for a fierce campaign against them in the border area’s Bajaur region.
As the war with al Qaeda continued, veteran enemy fighters were leaving Iraq, where the group is "on the verge of strategic defeat," and heading for Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Others have attempted to plot against the United States.
Al Qaeda has gained strength in North Africa, Somalia and Yemen while suffering deep setbacks in Saudi Arabia and Southeast Asia as well as Iraq, Hayden said. (Editing by Mohammad Zargham)