In a twin challenge to Islamic militants, President General Pervez Musharraf has praised Israel's leader for withdrawing from Gaza and claimed to have crushed al-Qaeda's ability to operate in Pakistan's cities and mountains.
Musharraf, speaking ahead of the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and a key visit to the US, has been repeatedly targeted by al-Qaeda-backed assassins. His openness to the Jewish state and grand plans to tackle the root causes of terrorism will further outrage Muslim hard-liners at home.
The 62-year-old military leader told reporters that he had no new clues on the location of Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri. He said the two top al-Qaeda leaders were still likely hiding out on either side of Pakistan's rugged border with Afghanistan, but isolated and unable to order terror attacks.
Dressed in a dark suit instead of his military uniform, Musharraf looked relaxed as he answered questions in the ornate 19th-century Park Lodge at a military camp in Rawalpindi, a short drive from the capital, Islamabad -- about 1.5km from where he narrowly escaped two bombing attacks within 10 days in December 2003.
"I feel very comfortable," said Musharraf, despite facing a nationwide strike call Friday by the political opposition, partly over his Israel policy, that led to shutdowns of shops in several cities. "There's some pressure from the opposition groups, but they don't command mass support at all."
Despite Musharraf's air of confidence, his power remains firmly grounded in his controversial retention of his army chief position -- raising growing questions about his commitment to restore democracy.
But he has won plaudits, particularly in the West, for taking tough decisions and tackling some taboo issues in this Islamic state.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he abandoned Pakistan's support of Afghanistan's Taliban regime and backed the US invasion of his neighbor. He later launched bloody military operations against al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan's tribal regions, and initiated peace talks with archrival India.
Detente with israel
In his latest gambit, Musharraf initiated Pakistan's first high-level contacts with Israel last week in response to its Gaza pullout.
Held in Turkey, the foreign ministers meeting sparked concern and fury among hardline Muslims who doubt Musharraf's insistence that he will not form diplomatic ties with Israel until it allows the formation of an independent Palestine.
Musharraf hinted that he would consider establishing relations if Israel took concrete steps toward that goal, though Pakistan has in the past taken a harder line against the Jewish state than some Arab countries.
"I can't really give a cut line," he said about when formal ties could be established. "But I'm always a believer in reacting before events, of foreseeing events and reacting accordingly ... I don't believe in reaction, I believe in action."
He praised Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for completing the withdrawal of settlements from Gaza last month.
"I think such actions need courage and boldness," Musharraf said. "We hope that he shows [an] equal amount of courage finally in the creation of the Palestinian state."
Musharraf, who characterizes himself as an "enlightened" Muslim leader, said resolving festering disputes in Palestine and Kashmir -- a Himalayan region divided between Pakistan and India -- were key to addressing the root causes of terrorism.