ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has started reaching out to some of Pakistan's most fervent Islamist and anti-American parties, including one that helped give rise to the Taliban, trying to improve Washington's image in the nuclear-armed state.
Obama's special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, is initiating dialogue between the United States and religious parties previous administrations had largely shunned, both sides said.
"The purpose is to broaden the base of American relations in Pakistan beyond the relatively narrow circle of leaders Washington has previously dealt with," explained Vali Nasr, senior adviser to Holbrooke.
John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Bush presidency, questioned Holbrooke's timing for trying to engage Taliban sympathizers on the eve of elections in neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are battling the hard-line Islamic group.
"As a general proposition, democracy in Pakistan is fragile enough now that negotiating with people that some on the democratic side of the Pakistani spectrum would think themselves are terrorists strikes me as fairly risky," Bolton said.
"What we ought to be doing is making sure that our ties with the military are strong because the gravest risk is radical penetration of the military."
At one of this week's sessions, Liaqat Baloch, a top member of the religious, right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, told Holbrooke he welcomed the new administration's public change in tone toward Muslims around the world.
But Baloch said he was disturbed to see "no change in practice" in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Obama has stepped up military operations against the Taliban on both sides of the border.
Holbrooke invited Jamaat-e-Islami, whom some U.S. officials compare to the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to visit the heavily guarded U.S. Embassy compound in Islamabad, seeking to dispel long-running rumors that thousands of U.S. Marines would be based there.
Holbrooke rejected the party's complaints about a Western "assault" on Islam, saying "that could not be further from the truth" with Obama, who has roots in the religion, now in the White House.
Fazl-ur-Rehman, whose Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Islam party was active in rousing support for the Taliban in 1990s, also got an audience with Holbrooke and his team.
Rehman denies Al-Qaeda's responsibility for the September 11, 2001, attacks, and once warned that if U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan, no American in Pakistan would be safe.
In more recent years, however, Rehman's relationship with the Taliban has grown uneasy, and he has publicly supported negotiations between the U.S.-backed government in Kabul and the Islamist group.
"His hands aren't exactly clean," Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation said of Rehman. "He is associated with the Taliban."
But she described his party as a legitimate political force that has met with U.S. officials in the past.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari praised Holbrooke's meetings with Islamist parties as "a new era" aimed at promoting reconciliation and dialogue instead of "the violent mind-set."
"We need to help Obama. He's a breath of fresh air to the world," Zardari told reporters travelling with Holbrooke.
Dressed in colorful turbans and traditional robes, most of the parliamentarians and clerics representing religious parties as well as tribes appeared to relish access to Obama's point man for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"It's good he's listening," said parliamentarian Munir Khan Orakzai of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas -- ethnic Pashtun lands on the Afghan border -- after pressing Holbrooke for a bigger share of development aid dollars.
Holbrooke, who has been meeting mainly Pakistan's political and military establishment, called his nearly hour-long session with Baloch's Jamaat-e-Islami "the most intellectually sustained debate I've ever had in this country".
But immediately after their meeting, Baloch and his delegation took to the streets, leading a protest against U.S. policy in Pakistan and the region.