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NATO Invites Pakistani President To Summit

Pakistani President Asif Zardari

Pakistani President Asif Zardari

NATO has invited Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to the alliance's summit in Chicago this weekend.

NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said the May 20-21summit will emphasize the international community's commitment to the future of Afghanistan and that Pakistan has an important role to play in its neighbor Afghanistan's future.

The invitation came as Pakistani leaders were meeting in Islamabad to discuss whether to reopen Pakistan's border to convoys carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan. A full cabinet meeting on the issue is expected on May 16. Reports have suggested that a decision to reopen the border could be made.

Pakistan closed the NATO supply route after NATO air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.

The United States has expressed regret for the deaths of the Pakistani solders but did not apologize.

The invitation to the NATO summit is the latest chapter in the often troubled relations between Pakistan and the United States, which is seeking Pakistan's help to bring stability to Afghanistan ahead of the planned withdrawal of some 130,000 NATO-led foreign forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, said on May 14 that Pakistan "has made a point" by shutting the border, but she said it was time to "move on" in relations with the United States.

Khar also said that Pakistan, like the United States, wanted "peace and stability" in Afghanistan.

"Pakistan's strategic objective in the region, and the stated objective of the West, or of NATO, in the region -- that of peace and stability for Afghanistan -- are exactly the same; they are identical. So we want to continue to be a facilitator and an enabler and not a blocker, and this is what Pakistan has tried to achieve," Khar said. "So why did they stop in the first place? They stopped in the first place because 24 of our soldiers were martyred in what seemed to be something we could not justify in terms of a reaction. So I think we need closure on that and [to] move on. It was important to make a point. Pakistan has made the point and we now need to move on and go into a positive zone of trying to conduct our relations."

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said continuing the blockade would punish not just the United States but other NATO countries or countries allied with the alliance.

"NATO is not confined to only one country, there are more than 40 countries that are involved," Gilani said. "We are seriously discussing on this issue. We have received the Parliamentary recommendations. Under the light of parliamentary recommendations we are moving forward and I think our talks are very constructive and that would yield results."

The route through Pakistan is seen as vital as NATO nations and NATO allies prepare to pull out their combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Ending the blockade, however, risks a demostic backlash in Pakistan.

In addition to the deaths of the 24 soldiers, anti-American sentiment in Pakistan has been fueled by the killing in a U.S. raid of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May, 2011, as well as by U.S. drone strikes in the border region with Afghanistan.

The U.S. says the drone strikes are a key tool in the battle against Islamist militants. But many in Pakistan believe they kill mainly civilians.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP