Obama talks terrorism, economy with Zardari

US President and his Pakistani counterpart also discussed blasphemy laws.

Updated: Jan 15, 2011, 11:22 AM IST

Washington: US President Barack Obama on Friday offered to look at new ways to help Pakistan`s troubled economy as he showed support for President Asif Ali Zardari at a White House meeting, officials said.

Zardari held a closed-door meeting with Obama after flying into Washington for a memorial service for Richard Holbrooke, the late US envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan which has been a top priority for the US administration.

Obama "underscored the importance of the US-Pakistan relationship and our continued support for Pakistan”, the White House said in a statement.

"The discussion focused on our shared efforts to fight terrorism and promote regional stability, specifically on the importance of cooperating toward a peaceful and stable outcome in Afghanistan," it said.

In the talks with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Zardari also explained the "needs and requirements" for Pakistan`s fragile economy, said Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to Washington.

"President Obama and Secretary Clinton have said that the US will over the next few days find ways to strengthen Pakistan`s economic reform process, while taking into consideration social and political factors," Haqqani said.

Haqqani said that Zardari expressed appreciation for assistance from the United States, which in 2009 approved a five-year, USD 7.5 billion package for the key but complicated war partner.

"Pakistan does not want to be a permanent recipient of aid. We want to be able to stand on our own two feet and for that we need economic reform," Haqqani said of the White House conversation.

But a bailout by the International Monetary Fund has hit a political roadblock in Pakistan.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani last week reversed a controversial hike in fuel prices, meeting demands of the opposition after the ruling party briefly lost its majority in Parliament.

Economic assistance was also a key item on the agenda when Vice President Joe Biden this week visited Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Obama and Zardari also touched on the assassination of Punjab`s governor Salman Taseer, an outspoken liberal who had campaigned to reform a law on blasphemy which activists say has often been abused to target minorities.

The confessed killer, Taseer`s bodyguard Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, was showered with petals at court as even some Islamic groups considered mainstream in Pakistan defended his assassination of his boss.

Obama "expressed the view that he was, like many people around the world and in Pakistan, distressed by the reaction of some people in Pakistan who were reluctant to condemn that assassination," Haqqani said.

"He appreciated the stance of the government of Pakistan in wanting to pursue the perpetrators of this crime as well as to continue to work toward building a moderate, democratic Pakistan, which is the strongest guarantee against the success of terrorists in our region."

The Obama administration believes that efforts to bring economic stability and build democratic institutions are crucial in targeting Pakistan, a nuclear power where some of the world`s most-wanted extremists are holed up.

The United States has pursued a campaign of drone attacks to kill extremists in lawless parts of Pakistan bordering Afghanistan, often irritating officials who say that the country`s sovereignty is being violated.

A senior US official said that Biden, in his talks in Islamabad, brought up the issue of extremist sanctuaries in the border areas.

"What we`ve seen over the past year is a significant effort by Pakistan against a number of extremist groups," the official told reporters as Biden flew home to Washington on Thursday.

Bureau Report