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Pakistan Seeks To Calm U.S. On Pact With Islamists

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi (R) and U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan's foreign minister has said he will try to allay U.S. fears about a pact with a group of Islamists in the troubled northwest, during a trip to Washington this week.

Under the pact, the provincial government has agreed to restore Islamic Shari'a law in the Swat Valley to pacify a growing militancy, sparking concerns that authorities were giving in to Taliban hard-liners.

"God willing we will be able to allay the reservations they have expressed," Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters in comments broadcast by state-run Pakistan Television on February 22.

"When we will explain them the local situation and objectives for which we have taken this measure and put across our point of view, I think...the confusion will be removed."

Qureshi will be visiting the United States this week to take part in a U.S. security-policy review for the region.

The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said on February 19 that he called Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and expressed U.S. concern over the pact with the Islamists

Western officials fear the pact, like previous ones, will only encourage Islamist militancy in the region at a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered an additional 17,000 troops to go to Afghanistan amid a spiraling Taliban insurgency in the border regions with Pakistan.

But Pakistani officials defend the pact as the best available option to stem the riding tide of militancy rolling from the wild tribal regions on the Afghan border to the cities and towns across the country, mainly in the northwest.

Obama, who has been in office for nearly a month, has made Afghanistan his top foreign-policy priority and has ordered a policy review of the region to be completed before a NATO summit in April.

Afghanistan's foreign minister will be leading his side in the policy review discussions in Washington.

Pakistan's army chief, General Ashfaque Kayani, is already on a weeklong visit to the United States where he would meet U.S. government and military officials.

Analysts say Pakistani officials would share Pakistan's experience of engaging Islamists in talks in a bid to isolate the hardcore militants groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban and would urge Washington to reach out to moderate Taliban in a bid to weaken the insurgency.

"I think Pakistan will encourage the U.S. to do the same in Afghanistan because these groups are not monolithic entities. One has to look into their contradictions and see whether one can play on their divisions," security and political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.

Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, in a recent newspaper article said Pakistan should also stress upon the United States to take into account Islamabad's security concerns with old rival India as its prepares to review its security policy.

India has established good relations with the Afghan government after the fall of Pakistan-backed Taliban in 2001, rekindling old fears in Pakistan that the growing clout of its giant eastern neighbor, with which it has fought three wars, in Afghanistan is part of a strategy to encircle it.

Relations between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India strained after Mumbai attacks in November by Pakistan-based militants but fears of a conflict receded after Islamabad acknowledged this month that the assault was launched and partly planned from its soil and vowed action against perpetrators.

Qureshi is also expected to ask the U.S. administration to cease missile strikes by unmanned drones against militant targets on Pakistani soil and call for increased U.S. military as well as financial assistance to help it fight militancy and address it deep economic woes, analysts said.