WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Saturday he was troubled by a U.S. intelligence report that al Qaeda has become entrenched in a safe haven in Pakistan’s tribal region near Afghanistan.
But Bush offered support for Pakistan’s embattled president, saying he believes Pervez Musharraf is committed to fighting al Qaeda and Taliban militants.
Part of the National Intelligence Estimate made public this week found a “persistent and evolving” threat to the United States from Islamic militant groups, especially Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda.
Bush, in his taped weekly radio address, said the report’s assessment that al Qaeda was gaining strengthen in the tribal region of Pakistan was “one of the most troubling.”
The United States, after being hit by al Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001, led an invasion of Afghanistan later that year to oust the Taliban religious movement that had seized power and to root out bin Laden and his followers.
Musharraf, an army general, has been an important ally to Washington but must contend with a violent campaign by Islamic militants and porous mountain borders that make it hard to halt the flow of fighters, weapons, opium and other drugs.
The White House has acknowledged that a truce Musharraf reached in September with tribal leaders had not worked.
Bush, now more than four years into a war in Iraq that has stretched the U.S. military, said Pakistan’s tribal leaders had proven unwilling or unable to police the area themselves.
“President Musharraf recognizes the agreement has not been successful or well-enforced and is taking active steps to correct,” Bush said.
“We will work with our partners to deny safe haven to the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan — or anywhere else in the world.”
Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat who lost to Bush in the 2004 presidential election, said U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that the Iraq war was diverting attention from al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“Our troops and our country need a new policy from this president, not the same old rhetoric,” he said in a statement.
Musharraf faces a political crisis amid waves of violence that erupted after government forces stormed a mosque in Islamabad this month to end a siege by militants.
Further weakening Musharraf, Pakistan’s Supreme Court this week reinstated the chief justice after the president sought to remove him. Pro-democracy activists had criticized Musharraf for suspending the top judge in March.
Pakistan’s North Waziristan area near the Afghan border is believed to be a hotbed of al Qaeda and Taliban activity, with U.S. officials saying bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders are hiding there.
Washington has been pressing Pakistan to do more against al Qaeda in the border area and has not ruled out U.S. strikes.
Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry has said that only its troops can conduct counter-terrorism operations on its soil.
U.S. forces in Afghanistan have carried out strikes in Pakistan, often with missile-carrying Predator drone aircraft, without confirming them so as not to embarrass Musharraf.
In the aftermath of September 11, Bush has sought make the fight against terrorism a defining issue of his presidency.
“As time goes by, it can be tempting to think that the threat of another attack on our homeland is behind us,” Bush said, adding the intelligence report made public this week “makes clear that the threat is not behind us.”