ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan – Pakistan pushed ahead Sunday with its surprise demolition of the compound where U.S. commandos killed Usama bin Laden last year, likely an attempt to erase the symbol of the colossal security failure that humiliated the nation and severely damaged ties with Washington.
Islamabad was outraged by the covert American raid in the northwestern town of Abbottabad because it was not told about it beforehand — a decision the U.S. explained by concerns that someone in the Pakistani government might tip off the Al Qaeda chief.
The operation left Pakistan's powerful army in the awkward position of explaining how it was unable to stop U.S. troops from attacking a compound deep inside Pakistan and located next to the country's military academy. Citizens also demanded to know how bin Laden was able to live in Abbottabad for six years without the government's knowledge, a question that remains unanswered.
The raid drove the crucial anti-terror alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan close to the breaking point, and in many ways it has never recovered. The relationship is critical to U.S. efforts to wind down the decade-long war in neighboring Afghanistan.
Heavy machines began tearing down bin Laden's three-story compound Saturday night under heavy security without the government providing advance notice. By Sunday evening, workers had destroyed around three-quarters of the large concrete compound and its tall boundary walls. They were clearing debris in large trucks so they could finish the job, according to an Associated Press reporter who managed to get close to the site.
Large numbers of police still surrounded the compound Sunday to keep spectators and journalists away, but the army soldiers present the previous night had departed.
Local residents expressed mixed feelings about the demolition, with some applauding the move and others saying the government should have put the building to public use.
Shabbir Ahmed, a 22-year-old college student in Abbottabad, said the presence of the compound sparked bad memories and made the lives of local residents more difficult.
"We were searched and questioned every time we wanted to reach our homes," Ahmed told The Associated Press. "When this symbol of evil is finally gone, people in the area will be able to rest."
But Mohammad Sarwar, a retired 60-year-old businessman, said razing the compound didn't make sense and was a waste of money.
"I don't know what benefit the government will get by its demolition instead of using it for some official or public purpose, like establishing a school, library or laboratory," said Sarwar.
The former trader said he suspected the government's decision was driven by U.S. pressure — a common sentiment in a country where anti-American attitudes are rampant and conspiracy theories flourish.
Some Abbottabad residents said in the wake of the raid that the compound should be turned into a tourist attraction to help the town earn money. There was always the danger, however, that it could also draw Al Qaeda supporters.
American officials said they buried bin Laden's body at sea to avoid giving his followers a burial place that could become a makeshift shrine.
Pakistani officials have declined to say why they decided to raze the compound.
Many U.S. officials expressed disbelief that bin Laden could have lived in Abbottabad for years with his wives and children without the Pakistani government knowing. But the U.S. has not found any evidence that senior Pakistani officials knew of the Al Qaeda chief's whereabouts.
The U.S. Navy SEALs who attacked bin Laden's compound on May 2 flew in under the radar by helicopter from neighboring Afghanistan. The raid, which lasted around 40 minutes, was a serious blow to the already troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship.
Pakistan responded by kicking out more than 100 U.S. troops training Pakistanis in counterterrorism operations and reduced the level of intelligence cooperation.
Some members of Congress called on the U.S. to cut of the billions of dollars of military and civilian aid to Pakistan unless Islamabad explained bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad and boosted cooperation on the Afghan war. The aid has continued, although at a somewhat lower level.