ISLAMABAD – Pakistan on Tuesday expressed concern to key ally the United States over missile attacks against Islamist militants on its soil, ahead of an anticipated surge of US troops into neighboring Afghanistan.
President Asif Ali Zardari and army chief General Ashfaq Kayani outlined Pakistan's position in talks with the visiting David Petraeus, the US commander for southwest Asia, said a Pakistani official.
Incoming US president Barack Obama, who was to be inaugurated in Washington just hours later, has identified battling Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in neighboring Afghanistan one of his administration's priorities.
Yet a more aggressive US strategy is likely to further antagonize Pakistan, a conservative Muslim country that has reacted angrily to dozens of suspected US missile strikes on its northwest since August.
Pakistan sought to relay its concerns to the US about a domestic backlash against the weak civilian government caused by the missile strikes, believed to be the work of unmanned drones from the Central Intelligence Agency.
"Pakistan expressed concern over the drone attacks and hoped that the new administration will take into consideration the negative impact domestically of such attacks for the democratic government," said a government official.
"Of course Pakistan reiterated its firm commitment in fighting terrorism and the US side reaffirmed Washington's support for Pakistan's effort in counter-terrorism," the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Petraeus, who is a key advocate of a major troop surge in Afghanistan, went subsequently into talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, said local officials.
Taliban and Al-Qaeda are hunkered down in lawless areas of northwestern Pakistan where security forces have been accused of supporting the militants despite Islamabad's public support for the eight-year US "war on terror".
Zardari, who has been in office four months, has previously expressed hope that the strikes will stop, and Pakistan's powerful army has vowed to defend its sovereignty, even if that means clashes with US forces.
US embassy spokesman Lou Fintor confirmed only that Petraeus was in Islamabad for "scheduled meetings with senior Pakistani civilian and military government officials on issues of joint concern".
Last in Pakistan in November, Petraeus visited amid heightened tension between nuclear powers Pakistan and India following extremist attacks in Mumbai, which New Delhi blamed on Islamists coming across the border.
A Pakistani security official had said that the latest Petraeus talks would focus on those tensions, an expected surge of US troops in Afghanistan this year and the situation in the tribal border areas.
The US military announced in December that reinforcements of 20,000 to 30,000 troops will be sent to Afghanistan, where about 70,000 international troops are fighting alongside Afghan security forces.
Last week, Obama's incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said the new US administration would try to deepen regional cooperation with Afghanistan, Pakistan and their neighbors to fight Islamist militancy.
"We have to look at Afghanistan and Pakistan together, particularly (in) the border region," where extremists have taken root, Clinton said.
Remnants of the hardline Taliban regime, which was toppled from power by the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, are waging an insurgency undermining the US-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Petraeus, lauded for turning round a Sunni insurgency in Iraq with a 30,000 troop "surge", this month called for a regional approach to resolving the conflict in Afghanistan, including Pakistan and perhaps even US foe Iran.
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