May 23, 2011 / 12:16 PM / 8 years ago

U.S. trial risks raising tensions with Pakistan

CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors will outline an elaborate plot that allegedly preceded the 2008 attack on Mumbai in a case against a Chicago businessman that could feature prominent roles by members of Pakistan’s spy agency.

The trial of Tahawwur Rana starting on Monday follows the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces that raised questions about whether Pakistani authorities knew the al Qaeda leader was in their country and about their commitment to fighting militant groups.

Prosecutors and Rana’s lawyers are due to make opening arguments to a jury in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

U.S.-Pakistan relations have long been marred by mistrust but the revelations about bin Laden’s whereabouts added fuel to a debate in the United States about billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan and its reliability as an ally in the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Rana, a Canadian citizen who owns an immigration service, is seen as a peripheral figure, accused of providing resources and a cover story for David Headley, an American who has admitted scouting targets in Mumbai for the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Headley, tipped as the key witness, has pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty and to keep from being extradited.

He has described to investigators how he funneled his surveillance to Pakistani militants who organized the attack that killed more than 160 people in the Indian commercial capital, including six Americans.

Headley has said the militants’ “handlers” were members of Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate.

Closely watched will be whether the ISI handlers are portrayed as rogue agents or integral to Pakistan’s rivalry with India, its eastern neighbor and long-time nemesis.

Prosecutors say Rana served as a conduit for messages between Headley and a man known as “Major Iqbal” who is believed to be part of the ISI.

Iqbal and a former Pakistani military officer are among six Pakistanis who have been indicted. None of them is in custody.

Rana, who faces the possibility of life in prison, and Headley were also charged with participating in a second plot with Pakistani militants. That plot, never carried out, allegedly targeted a Danish newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed which angered many Muslims.

Rana’s lawyers have said they will show Headley tricked Rana into thinking they were working with Pakistan’s government and were not bent on violence.

Editing by John O'Callaghan

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