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Musharraf Asks U.S. to Stop Bombing During Ramadan

By Vernon Loeb and Thomas E. Ricks

Pressure on the United States to radically curtail the war in Afghanistan grew Monday as Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf asked for a bombing pause during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan that begins next month. Britain’s defense secretary said a pause is under serious consideration.

In the clearest signal to date of Pakistan’s unease over the U.S.-led air campaign, Musharraf told Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the U.S. commander overseeing the war, in Islamabad that the Pentagon needed to rethink its bombing campaign after 22 days of air strikes. Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the campaign, cited civilian casualties and a lack of tangible success, according to Pakistani officials.

But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, reiterated his opposition to any bombing pause during Ramadan, saying that Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban militia and the al Qaida terrorist network it shelters “are unlikely to take holiday.”

“Given the fact that they have killed thousands of Americans and people from 50 or 60 other countries, and given the fact that they have sworn to continue such attacks, we have an obligation to defend the American people,” Rumsfeld said. He noted that “there have been any number of conflicts between Muslim countries, and between Muslim countries and non-Muslim countries, throughout Ramadan.”

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told reporters in London that a bombing pause is under consideration. “That is something we are looking at very seriously,” he said.

Hoon added, however, that British and American military officials do not want to give the Taliban and the al Qaida terrorist network time to regroup, “knowing that they will not face military action during the course of Ramadan.”

Seventy carrier-based strike aircraft, six long-range bombers and Air Force F-15E fighter bombers flew air strikes over Afghanistan Monday, concentrating on Taliban troops north of Kabul, the capital, and around Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, defense officials said.

Haron Amin, a spokesman for the opposition Northern Alliance in Washington, said the U.S. military has told forces with the rebel coalition that it is time for them to attack Mazar-e Sharif, a strategic crossroads city. “There has been communication on the ground, and (American forces) have asked us to move on Mazar,” Amin said. “To operate out of Mazar would help a lot of things to go forward.”

Rumsfeld announced that U.S. aircraft have begun dropping ammunition to forces of the Northern Alliance, a coalition of rebel groups dominated by ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks that controls a swath of territory in northern Afghanistan.

Expressing satisfaction with the results of the air campaign as it entered its fourth week, Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that U.S. aircraft have devastated Taliban air defenses and killed Taliban and al Qaida troops.

“We are in the driver seat,” Myers said. “We are proceeding at our pace. We are not proceeding at the Taliban’s pace or al Qaida’s pace. We can control that. And we are controlling it in a way that I think is right along with our plan that we set out.”