By Michael Georgy
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - U.S. special forces were embedded with Pakistani troops on intelligence-gathering missions by the summer of 2009, confidential American diplomatic cables showed, a revelation that could hurt the Pakistani military's public image.
The disclosure comes a day after another set of cables showed that Pakistan's powerful army chief not only tacitly agreed to the covert U.S. drone campaign against militants, but asked for "continuous Predator coverage" of the tribal areas by these aircraft. The army denied the contents.
The local Dawn newspaper, which said it obtained the secret dispatches from WikiLeaks, said they reveal that U.S. special forces were deployed with Pakistani troops in joint operations in Pakistan by September of 2009.
"Through these embeds, we are assisting the Pakistanis collect and coordinate existing intelligence assets, the cables quoted then American ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson as saying.
Pakistan's powerful military faced rare criticism after a secret U.S. special forces raid that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden not far from the capital Islamabad this month.
The infuriated army said the assault, which has severely strained ties between the two countries, was a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. But Pakistanis lashed out at the country's generals because they did not know about the raid.
Several cables showed the United States was eager to embed American troops with Pakistani soldiers, Dawn reported.
Patterson wrote in November of 2009 of the possibility that "operations in the northern FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) may provide additional opportunities to embed US Special Operations Forces ... ".
FATA is seen as a global hub for militants, including al Qaeda and Afghan militant factions who cross the border and attack U.S.-led NATO forces and Afghan troops.
By September 2009, plans for the joint intelligence activities had been expanded to include army headquarters, according to the cables.
"Pakistan has begun to accept intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance support from the US military for COIN (counterinsurgency) operations," Patterson wrote.
"In addition ? intelligence fusion centers" had been established "at the headquarters of Frontier Corps and the 11th Corps and we expect at additional sites, including GHQ and the 12th Corps in Balochistan."
Pakistani military officials were not immediately available for comment on the cables.
The presence of U.S. trainers in Pakistan has been publicly acknowledged, but such joint operations have not.
Anti-American sentiment runs high in Pakistan, partly because of the drone strikes on militants, which are seen as a violation of sovereignty and have killed civilians.
According to cables published by Dawn on Friday, Pakistan's chief of army staff General Ashfaq Kayani asked Admiral William J. Fallon, then commander of U.S. Central Command, for increased surveillance and round-the-clock Predator coverage over North and South Waziristan, strongholds for Taliban militants.
The Pakistan Army denied the contents of those cables.
Pakistanis are frustrated by their government's inability to subdue al Qaeda-linked homegrown Taliban militants, who seem to stage suicide bombings at will despite a series of military offensives on their strongholds.
Pakistan has come under further U.S. pressure to crack down harder on militancy since it was discovered bin Laden was living in a garrison town not far from intelligence headquarters.
Cooperation between Islamabad and Washington is needed to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan.
"Previously, the Pakistani military leadership adamantly opposed letting us embed our special operations personnel with their military forces. The recent approval by GHQ ? appears to represent a sea change in Pakistani thinking, said a 2009 U.S. cable carried by Dawn.
"These deployments are highly politically sensitive ? Should receive any coverage in the Pakistani or U.S. media, the Pakistani military will likely stop making requests for such assistance."
(Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)