WASHINGTON – President Bush on Saturday defended Pakistan's cooperation in the hunt for Usama bin Laden (search) despite the inability of U.S. and Pakistani troops to find the Al Qaeda leader who, Bush once declared, was wanted dead or alive.
The trail has gone cold in the more than three years since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban (search), bin Laden's patrons in Afghanistan, after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Bin Laden, who masterminded the strikes, is believed to be hiding in the wild mountainous region along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Oval Office meeting between Bush and President Pervez Musharraf (search) came just days after Pakistan's army said it was pulling out of one important area along the border. Still, Bush had nothing but praise for Pakistan and Musharraf as critical to the search and the overall fight against terrorism.
"His army has been incredibly active and very brave in southern Waziristan flushing out an enemy that had thought they had found safe haven," Bush said. That is a lawless tribal region of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border, that has been the focus of Pakistani efforts.
"His army has suffered casualties and for that we want to thank their loved ones for the sacrifice that their family has made," Bush said.
Musharraf came to the White House with a committed belief that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to combating terrorism. At Bush's side, Musharraf said the dispute was "the most important issue ... in the interest of peace in the whole world."
Musharraf succeeded in securing a strong commitment from Bush that the United States would take a more active role in the Mideast.
"I told him this would be a priority of my administration," Bush said.
Afterward, Musharraf told reporters that Bush had agreed that settling the Middle East conflict "is the core issue, the core at fighting terrorism." A senior Bush administration official, however, said Bush did not go that far.
Grateful for Pakistan's hard line against Islamic extremists and for the capture of Al Qaeda suspects, the United States nonetheless has a delicate relationship with Pakistan and is aware of the need to avoid roiling Pakistan's internal politics. Musharraf's support of the United States threatens to endanger him at home.
U.S. officials have praised Islamabad for its operations around Wana, the main town of the lawless and fiercely autonomous Waziristan region. Heavy resistance this year led to speculation that a high-profile fugitive — possible bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahri — was cornered.
Pakistani commanders now say they do not believe any of Al Qaeda's leaders are in the region and said they saw no sign of bin Laden.
Last month, Pakistan's army announced it was withdrawing hundreds of troops from South Waziristan.
The United States does not consider the withdrawal a downgrade in the hunt for bin Laden and others, said two senior administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. In briefing Bush on Pakistan's military operations in the border areas, Musharraf said the army's focus merely has moved to the North Waziristan region, the officials said.
"They make some adjustments to their force requirements from time to time," Secretary of State Colin Powell said later Saturday after his own meeting with Musharraf. "But President Musharraf reassured us of his full engagement."
U.S. military forces are mainly on the Afghanistan side of the border.
While a healthy looking bin Laden has appearing recently on videotapes, U.S. officials have sought to play down his significance in the broader anti-terror battle — shift from the days following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Four days after the strikes, Bush declared that bin Laden would be "sorely mistaken" to think he could hide from the United States. Days later, the president drew upon the "Wanted: Dead or Alive" saying from the American West when asked about his wishes for bin Laden. Today, Bush rarely mentions bin Laden.
"Of course we're concerned" about bin Laden, Powell said. "We would like him to not be on the loose. He's a terrorist. He is on the loose, but he's also under enormous pressure. ... Eventually he will be brought to justice."
Bush thanked Musharraf for his country's help in shutting down a trafficking network led by A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist implicated in selling nuclear secrets to Libya, North Korea, Iran and possibly other countries.
Though Khan was pardoned by Musharraf, he is under virtual house arrest in Islamabad and officials said Musharraf pledged full cooperation in obtaining more information from Khan about the network.
Bush did not raise one area of concern — Musharraf's backtracking on a pledge to relinquish his military post by year's end. The general seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 but had raised hopes in Washington that he was leading his country toward democracy.