Washington: The top US spy chief believes Osama bin Laden is hiding in Pakistan and Iran and is working on a nuclear capability but is still at least a year from making a bomb.
Osama bin Laden remains in "very deep hiding" in the tribal areas of Pakistan near the Afghanistan border, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director Leon Panetta told ABC News on Sunday.
"He obviously has tremendous security around him," he said of the al Qaeda leader sought by the United States in connection with the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Panetta estimated that no more than 50 to 100 al Qaeda terrorists were in Afghanistan, mainly in Kandahar.
With further efforts to disrupt al Qaeda operations and kill al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, "we think ultimately we can flush out" bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group`s second-in-command, Panetta said.
However, he acknowledged it had been years since the US had any good intelligence on the precise location of bin Laden.
On Iran, Panetta said the Tehran government continues to develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon, but that debate exists within the country on whether to actually do so.
"We think they have enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons," Panetta said. "They do have to enrich it, fully, in order to get there. And we would estimate that if they made that decision, it would probably take a year to get there, probably another year to develop the kind of weapon delivery system in order to make that viable."
The war in Afghanistan had "serious problems”, but the US-led mission was making progress, Panetta said. "It`s harder, it`s slower than I think anyone anticipated."
He cited governance problems, drug trafficking and the Taliban insurgency - all in a tribal society - as the major challenges to the goal of "making sure al Qaeda never finds another safe haven from which to attack this country”.
"Winning in Afghanistan is having a country that is stable enough to ensure that there is no safe haven for al Qaeda or for a militant Taliban that welcomes al Qaeda," Panetta said.
He downplayed the chances of a political reconciliation process succeeding in Afghanistan, saying the Taliban and its allies would only take part if they believed they faced certain defeat.
The world faces a "dangerous period" as North Korea`s ailing leader Kim Jong-Il tries to cement in his son as his successor, Panetta said.
Making reference to North Korea`s recent sinking of a South Korean warship at the loss of 46 lives, Panetta said US intelligence "shows that at the present time, there is a process of succession going on”.
Barring a dramatic change of course, Kim`s son Jong-Un seems set to inherit the reins of the hermit nation, which remains locked in confrontation with the West over its nuclear ambitions.
"Part of the skirmishes that are going on are in part related to trying to establish credibility for the son," Panetta said. "And that makes it a dangerous period."
Panetta said the same thing had happened when Kim took power.
"His son is very young. His son is very untested. His son is loyal to his father and to North Korea, but his son does not have the kind of credibility with the military, because nobody really knows what he`s going to be like."
The CIA director, however, also said he did not think the provocations would result in military confrontation.
"For 40 years, we`ve been going through these kinds of provocations and skirmishes with a rogue regime. In the end, they always back away from the brink and I think they`ll do that now," Panetta said.
(With Agencies’ inputs)