President George W Bush said on Wednesday if he had firm intelligence that Osama bin Laden was in Pakistan, he would issue the order to go into that country after the Al-Qaeda leader.
His statement drew an immediate response from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who said Pakistan would handle such a situation itself. Musharraf is extremely sensitive about possible foreign military intervention inside his borders.
The two leaders are to meet at the White House on Friday.
Asked in an interview with CNN whether he would issue an order to go into Pakistan to kill or capture bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahri, Bush replied, "Absolutely."
He added, "We would take the action necessary to bring them to justice."
When Bush's remarks were put to Musharraf at a news conference at the United Nations, the Pakistani leader replied, "We wouldn't like to allow that. We'd like to do that ourselves."
Bush considers Musharraf a valuable ally in fighting terrorism, but the Pakistani leader faces strong anti-American sentiment at home.
He is also disputing US and Afghan government statements that he is not doing enough to crack down on militants operating in the rugged border area.
Bush is intent on portraying his administration and party as tough on terrorism before the November election, in which his Republican party is fighting to keep control of Congress.
Bush noted that Al-Qaeda has made attempts on the Pakistani leader's life and said, "I view President Musharraf as somebody who would like to bring Al-Qaeda to justice."
Bin Laden and Zawahri have eluded a US manhunt over the five years since the September 11 attacks. They are believed to be hiding in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"There's no question there is a kind of a hostile territory in the remote regions of Pakistan that makes it easier for somebody to hide," Bush said. "But we're on the hunt. We'll get him."
Last week, Bush dismissed as an "urban myth" that his administration was not focused on hunting for bin Laden.
The Washington Post reported that the search for the al Qaeda leader had gone "stone cold, and Democrats say the Iraq war had shifted resources away from trying to find bin Laden.
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in New York)