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U.S. Looks At Pakistani Taliban Threat On Washington

Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud talks to journalists in South Waziristan in May 2008

Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud talks to journalists in South Waziristan in May 2008

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- U.S. officials are studying whether a Pakistani Taliban leader blamed for the assassination of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto poses a credible threat to the United States, a top U.S. military official said on April 1.

"Everyone is quite riveted on analyzing that and seeing what further we can find out," U.S. Army General David Petraeus said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Petraeus is responsible for U.S. military strategy in Pakistan and Afghanistan as head of U.S. Central Command.

On March 31 the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, who is accused of orchestrating a string of attacks in Pakistan, warned that Washington may be attacked for offering $5 million for information leading to his location or arrest.

"You can't imagine how we could avenge this threat inside Washington, inside the White House," said the militant, who is based in Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal region on the Afghanistan border.

He issued his warning while announcing that his group carried out an assault on a police academy that killed eight cadets and wounded scores of others.

That attack, in the city of Lahore, led to an eight-hour gun battle with security forces and came less than a month after gunmen killed six police guards and a bus driver during an attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team in the same city.

Mehsud, who has links with the Taliban in Afghanistan and sends fighters to target Western forces there, said the recent attack was in retaliation for U.S. drone attacks on militants in Pakistan.

The State Department has described Mehsud as a clear threat to American interests in the region. In his testimony Petraeus said the cross-border reach of Mehsud's group was questionable, but he added the threat would be taken seriously.

"We are doing what is, in intelligence circles, called a 'deep dive' to determine the possibility of that," he told lawmakers, adding that top officials on the White House National Security Council were involved in the effort.

A knowledgeable U.S. defense official said Mehsud could simply be posturing in an effort to expand his power base in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where Al-Qaeda is believed to enjoy safe haven.

But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mehsud could provide operatives, including suicide bombers, in aid of another Al-Qaeda plot to attack the United States.