ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Pakistani officials moved swiftly yesterday to use the suicide bombing of a luxury hotel in their campaign to build public support for military offensives against the Taliban, saying the country is at war.

Past offensives against Islamist extremists have resulted in backlashes as many Pakistanis concluded the only way to end the bloodshed and destruction was for the weak central government to strike a deal with the extremists.

The government did that as recently as this spring in the Swat Valley, only to have an emboldened Taliban violate the agreement by seizing an adjacent district.

"This is a war, but the people of this country will not bow to the cowardly acts of terrorists," North West Frontier Province senior minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour told reporters. "People are now seeing the real face of those who have been exploiting them in the name of Islam."

Tuesday's attack on the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar killed at least nine people as well as two attackers, a week after the Taliban threatened attacks in large cities to avenge an army offensive in Swat.

"We will fight this war until our last breath," Bilour said. "They cannot break us. The whole nation is united."

Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira used the same language. "The whole nation is united and backing the government and army in the fight against terrorists," he said in a statement.

That is an overstatement, at least in the rugged, lawless tribal belt where the Taliban and al-Qaeda have carved out a sanctuary of entrenched strongholds with at least tacit blessings from tribal elders.

Still, interviews with people on the streets of Pakistan's three largest cities - Peshawar, Karachi, and Lahore - found nothing but contempt for the Taliban.

Mohammad Zubair, 32, a human resources employee at a Lahore construction company, called the Islamic extremists "a mafia of criminals."

Moosa Ahmad, 40, a shopkeeper in Karachi, said the Taliban "should be chased wherever they are and wherever they go."

Tariq Khan, 26, a Peshawar teacher, lamented that the blast killed two U.N. workers - one from Serbia, the other from the Philippines - and wounded four others.

"They were helping us, and what we gave them was death, wounds, and fear," Khan said.

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political and defense analyst, said that people were fearful and that the overall sentiment was nuanced.

"Some people will start saying stop the operations and others will argue that you should take firm action against them. While ordinary people might sometimes have contradictory thinking, overall I would say the balance is tilting against the Taliban."

Investigators searched yesterday through debris at the Pearl hotel, where about two dozen U.N. workers were staying when the bomb went off.

Security-camera footage shows at least three attackers in two vehicles: a white sedan and a small truck. The vehicles pull up to a guard post outside the hotel, with the car in front. A puff of smoke appears near the car window. A guard collapses, apparently shot. The vehicles move into the hotel compound. A flash and eruption of dust follow seconds later.

The truck was carrying more than half a ton of explosives, senior police officer Shafqatullah Malik estimated.

Invoking World War II, Gates Urges Unity in Afghan War

Perfect lines of white crosses curving behind him, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates used a somber visit to the World War II Netherlands American Cemetery near Maastricht yesterday

to appeal for similar unity in the current war in Afghanistan.

Speaking to reporters, Gates said the allied nations fighting in Afghanistan shared a purpose akin to the partnership that liberated Europe six decades ago. But he hinted at some of the fractures in a coalition dominated by Americans, and where U.S. soldiers do the largest share of the hardest fighting.

Gates, in Europe for a review of the Afghan war as the first of 21,000 additional U.S. forces join the fight, emphasized "the continuing high importance of our partners staying with us and keeping this truly an international coalition."

Many Europeans strongly oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan

at a time of economic crisis and shrinking defense budgets. The Netherlands says it will pull its 1,600 troops out of lawless Uruzgan province next year.

- Associated Press

EndText