( AFP ) - Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama warned that as president, he would order US forces to strike Al-Qaeda inside Pakistan if President Pervez Musharraf failed to act.
Obama's tough remarks, which prompted the Pakistani government to caution presidential candidates against "point-scoring" on crucial security issues, came in a bold speech laying out his anti-terrorism strategy.
Days after his chief Democratic rival Hillary Clinton branded him "naive" and "irresponsible" on foreign policy, the Illinois senator also accused President George W. Bush of botching the war on terror.
"If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will," Obama said, referring to reports that Al-Qaeda had regrouped in Pakistani tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
"I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges, but let me make this clear: there are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again."
Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam told AFP she would not comment as Obama was not president, but added: "These are serious matters and should not be used for point-scoring. Political candidates and commentators should show responsibility."
The Bush administration last week attempted to smooth a row with Islamabad over threats to act against Al-Qaeda in Pakistan's territory, saying it had full respect for its sovereignty, though reserving the right to act.
Experts, lawmakers and academics have worried US action in Pakistani territory could set off a storm of protest and endanger Musharraf, a key US anti-terror ally.
Obama's speech was seen as a bid to bolster his foreign policy credentials, boost his campaign as a new national poll showed him well behind Clinton, and to counter claims he is too inexperienced to be president.
Arguing it was "time to turn a page," language seen as veiled criticism of Clinton whom he portrays as a voice of the past, Obama, 45, and a first-term senator, accused Bush of misrepresenting the terror threat.
"The president would have us believe that every bomb in Baghdad is part of Al-Qaeda's war against us, not an Iraqi civil war," Obama said in the speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
It was time to begin drawing down an "occupation of undetermined length" in Iraq, to focus on the "right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Obama said.
He said he would make hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid to Pakistan conditional on action to close Al-Qaeda camps, evicting foreign fighters and halting Taliban strikes in Afghanistan from Pakistani soil.
Obama also pledged to deploy at least two extra US brigades to Afghanistan to reinforce counter-terrorism operations and bolster NATO's fight against the Taliban.
"The solution in Afghanistan is not just military," Obama said. "It is political and economic. As president, I would increase our non-military aid by one billion dollars."
He bemoaned a "terrible mistake" by the Bush administration to "fail to act" when it reportedly had a chance to take out an Al-Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005.
His comment appeared to be a reference to a secret military plan to kill Al-Qaeda leaders including bin Laden's deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The New York Times has reported the mission was halted partly due to fears of harming US ties with Pakistan.
Obama also said he would personally put a new face on US diplomacy by making a speech at a major Islamic forum within the first 100 days of his presidency.
The Republican White House attributed Obama's remarks to the atmospherics of the campaign trail, but noted Pakistan had 100,000 troops in tribal areas, taking casualties and the fight to Al-Qaeda.
It was not the first time that the spectre of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan had entered the 2008 Democratic race.
In June, Clinton pledged to focus on Pakistan's anti-terror efforts like "a proverbial laser" and suggested the appointment of a high-level presidential envoy to help smooth prickly ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Last week Obama and Clinton waged a war of words over his comment that he would be ready to meet leaders of US foes like North Korea and Iran, which earned a rebuke from the former first lady.