The United States and its allies have intensified searches along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan for Osama bin Laden and other terrorists they fear may respond to war against Iraq with attacks, intelligence sources say.
The sweeps followed the March 1 arrest of al Qaeda's third most powerful man, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the hours after his arrest, a belligerent Mohammed praised Osama bin Laden and warned that "America will burn if it goes into Baghdad. Americans everywhere will not be safe," Pakistani intelligence officials told The Associated Press.
Pakistani officials Wednesday denied an Iran Radio report that bin Laden had been captured in Pakistan.
Murtaza Poya, deputy leader of the Islamic Awami Tahrik Party in Pakistan, who was quoted by Iran Radio, gave AP in Islamabad similar information.
"He (bin Laden) is in the custody of those who were chasing him and the announcement to that effect will be made between March 17 and 18th when the war in Iraq is expected to start," Poya said in a telephone interview.
He refused to identify the source of his information and said he was not told where bin Laden was apprehended or being held.
Pakistani officials said Poya was wrong.
"It is not correct," Interior Ministry Secretary Iftikar Ahmed told AP. "This is just not true," said Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, Pakistan's intelligence coordinator in the war on terror.
In Washington, the CIA said there was no truth to the reports. "We have absolutely no information to substantiate that," said spokesman Bill Harlow.
At Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, the headquarters of the U.S. military there, no one knew anything of bin Laden's arrest.
As anticipation builds over finding the al Qaeda leader himself, an awkward question is being raised: Would it be better to capture Osama bin Laden alive or ensure that he dies?
Both options pose serious problems for the Bush administration, especially as it tries to rally jittery Middle East allies for a war in Iraq.
"It's a tremendous debate. If you kill him you create a martyr, but if you capture him you have to go through a tribunal or a trial," said Michael Swetnam, a counterterrorism specialist at the Washington-based Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.
Many key Middle East allies, particularly bin Laden's native Saudi Arabia, fear bringing bin Laden to trial could prompt more violence from his followers.
"It's a known fact that he is popular here, and capturing him and putting him on trial would create unwelcome attention and possibly anger that could spill into violence in the streets," said an editor at a leading Saudi newspaper who refused to allow his name of newspaper to be identified, citing the extreme sensitivity of the issue in his country.
In the Saudi government's eyes, "killing him would be better than capturing him, even if that means making him a martyr," he said.
But capturing bin Laden and convicting him of his crimes could send a powerful message, others say.
A photograph taken shortly after the arrest of Mohammed showed a dazed and exhausted looking man, a far cry from the confident and well-dressed image seen in pictures on the FBI's Web site. Analysts say the photograph of an overweight, T-shirt clad Mohammed went a long way to shattering his air of invincibility and say similar images of a captured bin Laden would greatly diminish the myths surrounding him.
Bin Laden is not the only focus of the hunt, and he could also provide valuable information under interrogation about the vast terrorist network he inspired, and he would likely have knowledge of the whereabouts of other top al Qaeda leaders, like his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri.
Meanwhile, the search continues for other al Qaeda operatives, Taliban and loyalists of renegade Afghan rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
A poster depicting 16 wanted men, including Hekmatyar, bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar has been circulated in the region, as well as leaflets reminding people of the $25 million reward for their capture.
The posters are written in Persian and Pashtu, the predominant languages of the region.
In Afghanistan, U.S. operatives, who have been identified by Pakistani sources as CIA special forces, are working with allies in southern and northeastern Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan's southwestern Nimroz province, U.S. and Afghan forces carried out an operation near Rabat after picking up satellite images of men on horses. A firefight ensued and several people reportedly were killed or captured.
Hekmatyar and his men are the focus of the hunt in Afghanistan's northeastern Kunar province, where U.S. special forces have been based for months, and directly across the border in Pakistan.
In recent days, U.S. intelligence and military personnel have poured into the remote tri-border region. Still, many doubt the United States will ever get a chance to choose bin Laden's fate.
"He is too proud a person to allow himself to be captured alive," said Hamid Gul, former chief of Pakistan's intelligence agency. He said bin Laden has likely ordered his bodyguards not to allow him to be captured.
In any event, terrorism experts say taking bin Laden out is essential to winning the war on terrorism.
"If you kill him, yes, you will create a martyr," said Talat Massood, a security analyst and retired Pakistani general. "But he will be a martyr no matter what happens, so it would be much better to have him dead than out there on the run."