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Originally published November 30, 2010 at 11:14 PM | Page modified December 1, 2010 at 8:42 AM

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WikiLeaks: US worried over Pakistani nuke material

Once-secret U.S. diplomatic memos reveal Western concerns that Islamist militants might get access to Pakistan's nuclear material and American skepticism that Islamabad will sever ties to Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan.

Associated Press

ISLAMABAD —

Once-secret U.S. diplomatic memos reveal Western concerns that Islamist militants might get access to Pakistan's nuclear material and American skepticism that Islamabad will sever ties to Taliban factions fighting in Afghanistan.

They also show U.S. doubts over the abilities of the weak, unpopular civilian government. The army chief is shown to be an important behind-the-scenes political player who once talked about ousting President Asif Ali Zardari, who himself is said to have expressed concern the military might "take me out."

The revelations were published Tuesday by newspapers working together with WikiLeaks, which obtained more than 250,000 leaked American diplomatic files from missions around the world. Britain's the Guardian newspaper published many of them on its website.

A top Pakistani diplomat said the leaks would hurt ties between Islamabad and other nations.

"You have built them over the years and all of a sudden something gets out - it's top secret, it's classified, it harms the relationship," Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's ambassador to Britain, told the BBC.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan has already expressed his regret over the leaks.

In one memo, Prime Minister Gilani is quoted as saying he does not object to U.S. drone attacks against militant targets in the northwest - the opposite of what he and other top officials say in public, where they oppose them to avoid domestic criticism.

"I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it," Gilani is quoted as telling then-U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson in August 2008.

U.S. and Western officials have expressed concern over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal, given the threat posed by al-Qaida and Taliban militants, but in public have generally said they believed it was safe.

In a Feb. 4, 2009, document, Patterson wrote that "our major concern is not having an Islamic militant steal an entire weapon but rather the chance someone working in GOP (government of Pakistan) facilities could gradually smuggle enough material out to eventually make a weapon."

The Guardian reported that Russian and British officials shared the same concern.

Pakistan has repeatedly said its nuclear assets are safe.

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The papers reported that in 2007 Pakistan had agreed "in principle" to an operation to remove highly enriched uranium from a Pakistani nuclear reactor, but it was never carried because of domestic opposition. Pakistan said Monday it refused the operation because its own nuclear security would prevent the material from getting into the wrong hands.

U.S. National Intelligence Officer for South Asia Peter Lavoy told NATO representatives in November 2008 that despite pending economic catastrophe, Pakistan is producing nuclear weapons at a faster rate than any other country in the world.

The memos also provide insight into American views on Pakistan's efforts to fight extremists.

The United States is pushing Pakistan to take action against insurgents in the northwest who are behind attacks in Afghanistan. But Islamabad has resisted because it views the groups as potential assets against the influence of archenemy India in Afghanistan, once the Americans withdraw.

In one memo, Patterson said she was skeptical that Pakistan would abandon the militants. "There is no chance ... for abandoning support for these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India," she wrote.

Zardari was elected after the death of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, in a suicide blast in 2008, but he has been hounded by the opposition, the media and the army, which remains the real power center in the country.

In February this year, Patterson wrote the civilian government "remains weak, ineffectual and corrupt. Domestic politics is dominated by uncertainty about the fate of President Zardari."

In March 2009, during a period of political turmoil, Pakistani army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani told the ambassador that he "might, however reluctantly," pressure Mr. Zardari to resign, but revealed he had little time for the head of the opposition, Nawaz Sharif.

"Kayani made it clear regardless how much he disliked Zardari he distrusted Nawaz even more," the ambassador wrote.

Zardari emerges as a leader who is fearing for his position, and possibly his life - the wording is ambiguous.

The memos reveal that American Vice President Joe Biden told then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain that Zardari had told him the country's main spy chief and "Kayani will take me out," according to an account in the New York Times.

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