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Pakistani Foreign Minister Urges Open Mind On U.S. Aid Bill

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi: "Our government will never surrender our sovereignty."
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan's foreign minister has urged parliament to look with an open mind at a U.S. aid bill which the powerful military has voiced concern about and which critics say violates the country's sovereignity.

The U.S. Congress last week approved a bill tripling aid for Pakistan to $1.5 billion a year for the next five years and sent it to President Barack Obama for signing into law.

But in an effort to address U.S. concerns that Pakistan's military may support militant groups, the bill stipulates conditions for security aid, among them that Pakistan must show commitment in fighting terrorism.

The bill, co-authored by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar, also provides for an assessment of how effective the civilian government's control is over the military, including in the promotion of top military officials.

The army said on October 7 it had "serious concern" about aspects of the bill that could have an impact on national security.

The army's unusual public criticism of a diplomatic matter appears to have opened a rift with President Asif Ali Zardari's fragile government, which has rejected opposition complaints that the bill undermined sovereignty.

Analysts are not predicting any immediate showdown between the military, which has vowed to stay out of politics, and the government, but they say the army's criticism could embolden the opposition, which has whipped up criticism of Zardari.

'Never Surrender Sovereignty'

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi cut short a visit to Washington to fly back to Islamabad. He told parliament the government would accept its verdict on the bill but called for dispassionate analysis.

"If we have to take right decisions we shall have to take on the issues with open mind," Qureshi told the National Assembly, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported. "If we want to make decisions in the country's interest, we also need to be dispassionate and cool-minded."

Qureshi told parliament there was no question of the government allowing any violation of sovereignty.

"Our government will never surrender our sovereignty. We shall make decisions in the national interest," he said.

Qureshi said he had informed his American counterpart, Hillary Clinton, about Pakistan's national interests.

According to the bill, Clinton must certify to relevant congressional committees that Pakistan is meeting conditions.

Clauses in the bill require Clinton to certify that Pakistan is dismantling militant bases in its northwest, in the southwestern city of Quetta where the U.S. administration believes the Afghan Taliban leaders are hiding, as well as in Punjab province, where anti-India groups are based.

Clinton must also certify that Pakistan is preventing Al-Qaeda and other militant groups including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was accused of last November's assault on the Indian city of Mumbai, from operating in Pakistan and attacking neighbors.

The bill also seeks Pakistani cooperation to dismantle nuclear supplier networks by offering "relevant information from or direct access to" Pakistanis associated with such networks.

That is a reference to disgraced nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan who ran a black market in atomic technology. Pakistan has declined to let foreign investigators question Khan.

Parliament, where Zardari's party and its allies have a majority, is expected to wind up the debate next week. It is not expected to reject the bill but is likely to pass a resolution highlighting its concerns.