WASHINGTON -- Pakistan seems a natural destination for al-Qaida fighters and perhaps Osama bin Laden as U.S.-backed forces solidify control of Afghanistan. Across a 1,344-mile, largely unprotected border, it offers hide-outs and sympathetic tribesmen even though its government stands with the United States.
Flight into Pakistan by bin Laden and his allies would raise delicate issues of jurisdiction for the United States, making U.S. ground pursuit or bombing raids unlikely.
That wouldn't necessarily be a problem.
The Pakistanis ''are helping us look for not only Osama bin Laden but for all al-Qaida murderers and killers,'' President Bush said Monday.
But the alliance between the United States and the government of Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, is a delicate one.
Before the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Pakistan was one of the strongest supporters of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Pakistan's Islamic schools and mosques, in fact, helped give rise to the Taliban.
Musharraf, who is still the military chief, has pledged full support for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan. In recent days, he has increased security along the border, sending helicopter gunships as well as troops on horses and mules.
But suspicion smolders in Muslim Pakistan toward the U.S. presence in the region. And Taliban sympathizers are among the ranks of the Pakistani military. Some might quietly allow fleeing al-Qaida fighters and their Taliban allies to escape.
Still, it might be difficult for bin Laden -- tall, slim and Arab-born -- to remain at large for long, even in the mountains of Pakistan, analysts suggested.
''There are plenty of places to hide. But Pakistanis know the area better than he does. It would be just a matter of time before he is tracked down,'' said Stephen Cohen, a former State Department official who has written extensively on Pakistan.,
Furthermore, Cohen said, Pakistan's leaders ''are more likely to turn him over dead than alive, since they would not want him to recount fully what kind of connections he had with their intelligence services. He's worth more to them dead than alive, and I'm sure bin Laden knows that.''
''Everyone knows that there is a $25 million tag on his head, so there's a pretty good chance somebody would turn him in,'' said Dan Benjamin, a military analyst with the private Center for Strategic and International Studies. He referred to the U.S. bounty for information leading to bin Laden's capture.
The Bush administration is treading carefully on the issue of what happens next if it can be established that bin Laden has escaped to Pakistan.
''Pakistan, of course, as a sovereign nation, has the jurisdiction,'' Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem, a Pentagon spokesman, said Monday. ''We are not in hot pursuit across a border.'' As to bin Laden's whereabouts, Stufflebeem said, ''Anyone's guess.''
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said he would not ''engage in speculation'' on whether Bush would carry the battle into Pakistan.
''The president has made clear this is a war against terrorism, against those who would do harm to us around the world. And there are multiple fronts in that war,'' Fleischer said.
U.S. officials don't want to overplay their hand in Pakistan.
They don't want to destabilize Musharraf's government. A grab for power could put Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in the hands of radical Islamic militants.
The picture is also complicated by increasing tensions between Pakistan and India.
India said Monday it was preparing to retaliate over last Thursday's deadly suicide attack on its parliament. India contends the operation was planned by Pakistan's intelligence agency and carried out by five Pakistanis. Thirteen people were killed in the raid, including the attackers.
Among the potential targets for India: terrorist training camps it alleges are scattered across Pakistan.
''Keeping Pakistan stable matters a lot more than getting bin Laden,'' said Michael O'Hanlon, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution.
''At this point, we can afford to keep bin Laden on the run and take our time tracking him down. Obviously, it would be better to get him sooner.''
Tom Raum has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973.
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