ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Bush secretly approved orders allowing American Special Operations forces to undertake ground assaults inside Pakistan this summer without getting prior Pakistani government approval, a former intelligence official said Thursday.
The disclosure is certain to further anger Pakistan, after the country's prime minister on Thursday backed a harsh rebuke of the U.S. by the Muslim nation's military chief, a sign of a strain in relations seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks forged the two countries' anti-terror alliance.
The official told The Associated Press that Bush signed the classified order over the summer. It gives new authority to U.S. forces to target suspected terrorists in the dangerous area along the Afghanistan border.
U.S. counter-terror operations along the border are highly unpopular in Pakistan, whose new leadership is trying hard to show independence from Washington.
Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful but media-shy army leader, said nearly a week after a deadly American-led ground assault in Pakistani territory that Pakistan would defend its sovereignty and that there was no deal to allow foreign forces to operate inside its borders.
He said unilateral actions risked undermining joint efforts to battle Islamic extremism.
"Reckless actions" which kill civilians "only help the militants and further fuel the militancy in the area," he said.
"The sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country will be defended at all cost and no external force is allowed to conduct operations inside Pakistan," he said in the Wednesday statement.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, in comments reported Thursday by state media and confirmed by his office, said Kayani's words reflected government opinion and policy.
Asked to comment on the report of secretly approved raids, the Foreign Ministry referred to Kayani's statement.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that American troops carried out the operation in South Waziristan but have not given details. The mission's goal and results remain unclear. Local residents said at least 15 people died.
The ground assault last week, and a barrage of suspected U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan in recent days, suggest growing American impatience with Pakistan's progress in eradicating militant safe havens in its semiautonomous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
U.S. officials say clearing militants from such pockets in Pakistan's northwest is critical to reducing attacks on NATO and American forces in Afghanistan.
"Until we work more closely with the Pakistani government to eliminate the safe havens from which they operate, the enemy will only keep coming," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
A Pentagon spokesman would not directly respond to Kayani's remarks, but said the two countries were cooperating.
Still, the Pakistani leaders' comments indicate growing frustration and fading trust in both countries on the anniversary of the attacks in the United States.
Many Pakistanis blame their nation's alliance with the U.S. for fueling violence in their country, while U.S. officials worry that Pakistan's government is secretly aiding militant networks — keeping them as a wedge against longtime rival India.
While Pakistan's government earlier issued strident protests over the ground assault, even summoning the U.S. ambassador, Kayani's statement was significant because he so rarely speaks publicly and because he heads Pakistan's most powerful institution.
In his first public criticism of American policy, Kayani indicated he was sensitive to anger among Pakistanis, and possibly even within the military, over the assault and suspected missile strikes, analysts said Thursday.
"It expresses a deep concern in Pakistan and was quite timely because of the feeling in Pakistan as if the army and the government of Pakistan has surrendered to whatever Americans want to do in the tribal regions," political analyst Rasul Bakhsh Rais said.
The cross-border strike comes at politically sensitive times in both countries.
The Bush administration is on its way out, leading some analysts to speculate it is turning to missiles and ground assaults in Pakistan to try to score last-minute victories in the face of a growing Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he and Bush would hold a videoconference Thursday to discuss a new approach to policing the Afghan-Pakistan border.
Pakistan, meanwhile, just elected a new president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is generally considered pro-American and has said terrorism is Pakistan's chief challenge.
Zardari was sworn in Tuesday and visited his wife's grave to pay respects Thursday. He has faced some criticism for not being more outspoken in condemning U.S. strikes in Pakistan.
Also Thursday, residents found the bodies of two men believed to be among 25 police recruits reported abducted by militants in northwest Pakistan. The partially beheaded bodies were found in an open area in Orakzai town, said Khan Afzal, the mayor of nearby Hangu district.
Meanwhile, the bullet-riddled bodies of three men active in anti-Taliban activities were found Thursday in the Bajur tribal region, witnesses and officials said.
Government official Jawed Khan said the bodies were found with a letter saying, "This is the result of working against the Taliban and cooperating with the army instead of joining jihad."
Tribal leaders in the Salarzai area of Bajur have denounced the Taliban. Recently, armed tribal members torched and destroyed several suspected militant houses and hideouts.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.