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Al-Qaida figure believed killed in US drone strike

An Iraqi al-Qaida operative was believed to be one of 15 militants killed in two U.S. missile strikes in Pakistan's tribal belt along the Afghan border Monday, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

The officials said the man, identified as Abu Zaid al-Iraqi, handled the terrorist group's finances in Pakistan. He was not known to be on any published U.S. lists of wanted al-Qaida leaders, and U.S. officials do not normally acknowledge the existence of the CIA-led missile program or talk about who is being killed.

The two strikes, coming roughly 24 hours apart, were the first since the arrest of a U.S. citizen who shot two Pakistanis in late January. There had been speculation that Washington had put a hold on the disputed tactic while it pressured Pakistan to release the American, saying he has diplomatic immunity and acted in self-defense.

In the first strike, which occurred overnight Monday, three missiles hit a house in the village of Kaza Panga in the Azam Warsak area of the South Waziristan tribal region, said two intelligence officials.

Al-Iraqi was believed to be one of several foreigners among the seven dead. He was described as being in his late 30s and going by the local name "Ali Khan." Al-Iraqi is believed to have shifted to South Waziristan in 2008 after time spent in Afghanistan.

The officials said they learned of his death through agents on the ground in South Waziristan, as well as sources in the Taliban. Nonetheless, independent confirmation of such deaths is nearly impossible because of the remote, dangerous nature of the areas involved. Rarely are bodies made available as proof.

Pakistan's tribal regions have long been key hideouts for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, including many from other countries. While Pakistan's military has waged offensives in various parts of the northwest, the U.S. has also used drone-fired missiles to target insurgents there.

Most of the missiles hit North Waziristan, a region populated with several militant groups whose primary focus is attacking U.S. and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has not taken action in that area because it says its priority is tame militant groups launching attacks on Pakistan's soil.

The second strike Monday involved four missiles that struck a house in Spalga village near Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, killing eight alleged militants, said two other intelligence officials. There was no immediate word on the exact identities of those killed.

The Pakistani intelligence officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to reporters on the record.

The frequency of the missile strikes — often more than one a week — dropped to zero after American Raymond Davis was detained for shooting two Pakistanis in the eastern city of Lahore on Jan. 27.

The U.S. has demanded his release, arguing Davis was acting in self-defense against robbers and has diplomatic immunity from prosecution because he works for the U.S. Embassy.

Former and current U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to talk publicly about the incident, have told The Associated Press that Davis had been working as a CIA security contractor for the U.S. consulate in Lahore.

It was never clear whether the Davis incident had any direct impact on the lull in missile strikes. But observers have speculated Washington may have been holding back on the strikes to avoid further angering a population already riveted by the Davis arrest.

Pakistan's government publicly denounces the missile strikes as violations of its sovereignty, but is believed to secretly support the program. Wary of public opinion, however, Islamabad has strained its ties with the U.S. by refusing to verify whether Davis is a diplomat.

Officials here say the matter is up to the courts, where police say they want to pursue murder charges against him.

In Pakistan's southwest, meanwhile, a bomb placed in a lavatory at a bus terminal killed a man and wounded two other people. Police official Hamid Shakeel said the device went off in Quetta, the main city of Baluchistan province.

Baluchistan has long been the scene of a low-level insurgency by ethnic nationalists seeking more autonomy for the province and a greater share of the money derived by the government from its natural resources.

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Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Adam Goldman and Kimberly Dozier in Washington contributed to this report.