WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani sought on Monday to reassure U.S. President George W. Bush of his government’s commitment to securing its border with Afghanistan, where Taliban and al Qaeda militants pose a growing threat.
Gilani, on his first official visit to the United States, held talks with Bush hours after a suspected U.S. missile strike killed six people, possibly including an al Qaeda chemical and biological weapons expert, in a Pakistani tribal region.
The attack underscored U.S.-Pakistani tensions that Gilani’s visit was intended to ease as his fragile coalition tries to find its footing since defeating allies of President Pervez Musharraf, former army chief and Washington’s close ally, in a February election.
Alarmed by rising casualties among Western forces in Afghanistan, the United States wants Pakistan’s new government, which has turned increasingly to dialogue with militants, to do more to stop them from launching cross-border attacks.
“We talked about the need for us to make sure that the Afghan border is secure as best as possible,” Bush told reporters after the White House talks. “Pakistan has made a very strong commitment to that.”
Gilani insisted his government was “committed to fight against those extremists and terrorists who are destroying and making the world not safe.”
But he stopped short of making any concrete public promises about exactly how Pakistan would deal with militants in its border areas.
BREATHING SPACE FOR MILITANTS?
Asked about the missile attack in a CNN interview, Gilani said: “There should be more cooperation on the intelligence side, so that when there is credible and actionable information given to us, we will hit (it) ourselves.”
Gilani put Pakistan’s main spy agency under civilian control on Saturday. The Inter Services Intelligence Agency has often been blamed by neighboring India and Afghanistan for masterminding attacks in their countries.
In response to Gilani’s request, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: “Our intelligence agencies work with each other on a regular basis and I expect that to continue.”
Washington has acquiesced to the new Pakistani government’s strategy of using tribal elders to try to persuade Islamist guerrillas to stop fighting. But U.S. officials also fear it gives militants breathing space to increase the flow of fighters across the border to fuel the Afghan insurgency.
Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, is widely believed to be hiding along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
The war in Afghanistan, and by extension Pakistan’s level of cooperation in the border areas, has become a hot issue in the U.S. presidential election campaign.
Sensitivities also run high in Pakistan, where there is deep concern about U.S. attacks on militants in its territory.
White House officials declined comment on the target of Monday’s strike, which a senior Pakistani security official said could have been Abu Khabab al-Masri, an Egyptian chemist regarded as one of al Qaeda’s top bomb makers.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with Gilani on the White House driveway, Bush voiced support for Pakistan’s transition to democracy and twice asserted Washington’s support for Pakistani sovereignty.
Bush also gave Gilani an offer of $115 million in food aid over the next two years. That was high on the Pakistani leader’s agenda as he seeks to curb disenchantment at home with his coalition led by the party of slain two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Pakistanis are reeling from soaring oil and food prices, and many people see the spread of Taliban influence across the country’s northwest as a consequence of supporting the U.S.-led fight against Islamic militancy.