Officials: Pakistan army to take on S. Waziristan

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's army is readying itself for a major offensive against al-Qaida and Taliban in their stronghold in South Waziristan, intelligence officials said Friday, an operation likely to win U.S. praise — yet face steep challenges.

The three intelligence officials did not specify a time frame, and the army would not confirm a local newspaper report that the offensive could begin within days. The military still needs a final nod from the government and is trying to strike deals with some local warlords in the northwest region bordering Afghanistan to support it or at least stay neutral, the intelligence officials said.

In June, the government said it had ordered the military to wage an offensive in the region aimed at eliminating Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban chief. The army spent weeks cutting off militant escape routes and softening up targets in the tribal region, using limited, intelligence-led ground and airstrikes.

But a U.S. missile ended up killing Mehsud in August, and ever since, it has been unclear whether the military would go full-scale in South Waziristan and take out the rest of his network.

Earlier this week, hundreds of people fled South Waziristan amid speculation that a ramped up operation was imminent, adding to the tens of thousands vacating the area in the past several months.

It was unclear why officers would leak news of an operation before it was launched. In past weeks, army spokesmen have repeatedly refused to publicly give a date for a full operation in South Waziristan, saying they do not want to tip off the militants.

South Waziristan is believed to be a possible hiding place for al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. The military has launched past offensives there, but abandoned them in the face of stiff opposition, at times striking peace deals with militants that collapsed.

The intelligence officers said the army now had the required troops, helicopter gunships, planes and other heavy weapons for targeting militants in South Waziristan in three army bases in the region. They said they were awaiting final approval from top authorities before moving in. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the media.

But Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's tribal regions who is well-connected with army officials, said he had yet to see the sort of military movement necessary to go in full force. Shah said there are more than 20,000 troops in South Waziristan and a similar number in neighboring North Waziristan, but not enough for the task at hand.

"I would say the army has decided a ground offensive, but I do not think it is very close," he told The Associated Press by phone. "I am saying it is not going to happen in days. I am confident there is nothing like this in next 15 days."

Pakistan has won praise in the West over the past year for moving against militants in the frontier region. The U.S. in particular is keen on eliminating safe havens in Pakistan for militants involved in attacks on American and NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Pakistan's most intense effort has been in the northwest's Swat Valley, where it has largely beaten back a Taliban insurgency.

As it winds down operations in Swat, it may be better prepared for an offensive in South Waziristan, but tribal loyalties and geography could prove big headaches.

The intelligence officials said the government was still negotiating with warlords Maulvi Nazir, of South Waziristan, and Hafiz Gul Bahadur of North Waziristan. "What the Pakistan army is working on is that if they both do not announce their support, then they should remain impartial," one said.

Both leaders are known to control several thousand fighters and have made deals with Pakistani authorities in the past, but are believed to also support attacks against Western troops in Afghanistan. Analysts have said ensuring they do not join forces with the Taliban will be key to any success in South Waziristan.

South Waziristan is a mountainous, underdeveloped territory. It has a leaky border with Afghanistan and barely any government infrastructure. The looming winter could make the battle that much harder.

Dawn newspaper's Friday editions quoted unnamed officials as saying that a major operation in South Waziristan would begin "in the next few days." Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said only that "no date had been decided or announced" for any operation.

Mahsud reported from Dera Ismail Khan. Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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