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Lawmakers defend Pakistan strike

18 killed, but al Qaeda No. 2 man apparently not among them



Was the U.S. airstrike targeting a top al Qaeda leader in Pakistan justified?
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Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. politicians have expressed regret over the weekend killings of 18 civilians along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, but said the airstrike was justified by the erroneous belief that a top al Qaeda leader was among the group, which included women and children.

"Now, it's a regrettable situation, but what else are we supposed to do?" Sen. Evan Bayh, asked rhetorically. "It's like the wild, wild west out there. The Pakistani border's a real problem."

Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was the target of Friday's CIA airstrike in the village of Damadola.

Bayh, an Indiana Democrat, said the "real problem" lay with the Pakistani government's inability to control that part of the country, where sympathetic residents were believed to be harboring al Qaeda leaders.

"So, regrettably, this kind of thing is what we're left with," Bayh told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer."

The death toll from Friday's strike included five children, five women and eight men.

After the attack, a Pakistani intelligence official said al-Zawahiri was not among the dead and it was not known whether he had been in the area.

The killings sparked demonstrations across the country Sunday, with tens of thousands of people marching against Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, and the United States. Demonstrations took place in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi.

Bayh said the killings put Musharraf, who must walk a fine line in trying to control the region while not alienating his supporters, in a precarious position.

"It's a balancing act," he said. "How do they go about trying to bring that area under control, cooperate with us without causing the kind of political problems that would destabilize the government?"

And Sen. Trent Lott added, "I would have a problem if we didn't do it."

"There's no question that they're still causing the death of millions of -- or thousands of -- innocent people and directing operations in Iraq," said Lott, a Mississippi Republican. "Absolutely, we should do it."

Bayh expressed similar sentiments, and cited the al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington of September 11, 2001, as justification. "These people killed 3,000 Americans. They have to be brought to justice."

Senator John McCain, also concurred.

"It's terrible when innocent people are killed; we regret that," he told CBS' "Face the Nation."

"But we have to do what we think is necessary to take out al Qaeda, particularly the top operatives. This guy has been more visible than Osama bin Laden lately.

"We regret it. We understand the anger that people feel, but the United States' priorities are to get rid of al Qaeda, and this was an effort to do so."

He added, "We apologize, but I can't tell you that we wouldn't do the same thing again."

Saturday, Pakistan's Foreign Office said it had lodged a protest with the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan over the strike in the remote Pakistani village, and said the incident was being "thoroughly investigated" and would be addressed in the next meeting of the Tripartite Commission -- a group made up of senior military and diplomatic representatives from coalition forces, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In Bajour agency, the district including Damadola, tribal leaders vowed to continue their protest for three days, and shops in the district will be closed.

Pakistan's religious party alliance, MMA, called for protests. They were joined by the Mutihada Qaumi Movement, a key alliance party in Musharraf's government that has several federal ministers in the Cabinet.

Many of the protesters directed their ire toward Musharraf for allowing the U.S. strike to occur.

Both the Pentagon and the White House declined comment on the attack. An FBI official said the bureau was willing to assist in the examination of DNA samples of the victims, although Pakistan had not requested help.

A preliminary investigation, Pakistan's Foreign Office said in a statement, showed "there was foreign presence in the area and that in all probability was targeted across the border in Afghanistan. As a result of this act, there has been loss of innocent civilian lives, which we condemn."

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Pakistan's information minister, said that the U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker, would be summoned and a strong protest made.(Watch Pakistan take a stand against what it says is improper CIA conduct -- 3:21)

"While this act is highly condemnable, we have for a long time been striving to rid all our tribal areas of foreign intruders who have been responsible for all the violence and misery in the region. This situation has to be brought to an end," he said.

He added that it "is also the responsibility of the people in the areas to fully cooperate.'"

U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan have long been concerned about Taliban and al Qaeda fighters taking refuge in Pakistan.

The Foreign Office statement said Pakistan's armed forces "have undertaken large-scale operation against the foreign militants and it remains our responsibility to protect our people and territory from outside intrusion."

U.S. authorities believe al-Zawahiri, 54, a doctor from a prominent Egyptian family, helped mastermind the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He has been indicted in the United States for his alleged role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The U.S. government has put up a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture.

In March 2004, Pakistani troops launched an assault on an area in Waziristan province where intelligence indicated al-Zawahiri was hiding, but he was not captured.

Last month, Pakistani officials confirmed the death of a top al Qaeda official, Abu Hamza Rabia, who was killed in an explosion December 1 north of the border town of Miram Shah. (Full story)

But witnesses gave conflicting accounts of how he died. Villagers said he was killed in a missile strike, while Pakistan officials said he died while working with explosives.

Egyptian-born Rabia was described as al Qaeda's operations chief and No. 3 man.

CNN Producer Syed Mohsin Naqvi contributed to this report

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