WASHINGTON, Dec. 6 (UPI) -- The International Atomic Energy Agency thought it might have better than luck than the United States in its quest to interview Dr. A.Q. Khan, the revered father of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, and history's most flagrant nuclear proliferator.
But President Pervez Musharraf has now turned down IAEA's request, just as Washington, despite $3 billion a year in aid, has been denied access to Khan, a national icon who is by far his country's most popular figure. This Islamic Dr. Strangelove ran an underground black market of nuclear know-how for the benefit of America's enemies: North Korea, Iran and Libya.
In 2003, after years of painstaking international sleuthing, the CIA pieced together a detailed rundown of the Pakistani icon's illicit activities going back 18 years, including several trips to Iran. Libya's mercurial dictator Moammar Gadhafi, fearful of U.S. military intervention, clinched the CIA's case when he decided to go public with his own purchases at Khan's nuclear Wal-Mart.
In October 2003, then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage presented Khan's nuclear laundry list to President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf feigned surprise and said this was the first time he'd heard about it though he'd been army chief of staff since 1999.
To placate his American friends, Musharraf persuaded Khan to grovel a tongue-half-in-cheek apology on national television - in English. The national language is Urdu. He also placed him under house arrest, but allowed him to keep his ill-gotten gains - abroad. This reporter drove by Khan's house in Islamabad one evening last September. A single security guard stood on the street, as did security guards in front of all the other houses in the upscale neighborhood.
When IAEA Director Mohammad ElBaradei suggested this week that direct dialogue with Khan would help solve the puzzle of Iran's secret nuclear weapons activities, a Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman quickly reminded him the policy on Khan was unchanged: Whatever information is required would be provided by the Pakistani government.
The last thing Musharraf needed now was pressure from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the coalition of six politico-religious extremist parties. The Islamist parties and their social services were first on the scene after the worst natural disaster in the country's history. They were swifter than army relief efforts. Thousands of earthquake survivors are still without proper shelter in destroyed and still inaccessible mountain villages in the part of Kashmir that is controlled by Pakistan. Snow and bad weather prevented helicopters from entering narrow gorges where roads and footpaths are buried under avalanches. The final death toll will be close to 100,000. Two months after the quake, hundreds of thousands are still huddled in small unheated tents.
The Urdu media has been highly critical of what was characterized as the army's slow-moving rescue efforts. Musharraf's green light for NATO's offer of assistance also incurred immediate Islamist wrath. The MMA's "strategic adviser," former intelligence chief Hamid Gul, told the Urdu newspaper Nawa-e-Waqt, Musharraf invited NATO to participate in earthquake relief operations because he was weak and insecure. "But we are sending NATO packing whence it came," warned Gul. Musharraf's green quickly switched to red. The 90-day NATO mission would not be renewed, and the U.S. admiral in charge returned to his Lisbon headquarters.
President Bush's decision to declare Pakistan "a major non-NATO ally" has not worked out according to plan. Musharraf's constant balancing act between the United States and the religious parties that sympathize with Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida, required a sop to the war on terror. Pakistan announced Abu Hamza Rabia - supposedly al-Qaida's No. 3 and director of operations - was killed in North Waziristan on the Afghan border. By giving Rabia high value, Islamabad thought it could placate Washington by demonstrating effectiveness in the war on terror. But the attempt to take credit quickly backfired when the Pakistan unit in the area reported Rabia had been killed by a guided missile from an unmanned U.S. Predator aircraft.
If indeed it were Rabia, who had a $5 million bounty on his head, he would be the third individual to occupy the third ranking position in al-Qaida in less than a year. The first was Abu Farj Al-Libbi, captured last May. His predecessor, Haitham al-Yemeni, was killed in another U.S. airstrike days later.
But U.S. intelligence sources said these were not in al-Qaida's global pecking order. They were the top leaders in operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rabia, according to the Pakistanis, was the man who had organized two assassination attempts on Musharraf in Rawalpindi two years ago.
At first, Musharraf said he was "200 percent" certain Rabia was dead. National security adviser Stephen Hadley said this could not be confirmed as Rabia's body had not been recovered from the house that was bombed near Miram Shah in North Waziristan. Musharraf then said it was now "500 percent." Verbal escalation is a given in Pakistani politics.