- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

President Bush yesterday pledged to work closely with Pakistan to defeat terrorism, although he ignored questions about a U.S. air strike that killed 13 Pakistani civilians and five suspected al Qaeda members this month.

Mr. Bush also announced that he would visit Pakistan and India in March.

“The relationship with Pakistan is a vital relationship for the United States,” Mr. Bush said during an Oval Office meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. “We’re working closely to defeat the terrorists who would like to harm America and harm Pakistan.”

The sentiments were echoed by Mr. Aziz, who made no public reference to the air strike that has strained relations between Washington and Islamabad.

“Our coalition with the United States in fighting terrorism is very important to all of the world and all of civil society,” Mr. Aziz said.

But on Sunday, Mr. Aziz condemned the U.S. air strike that he said killed 13 civilians in a remote region near the Afghanistan border. U.S. forces were trying to target al Qaeda operatives who reportedly had gathered for dinner.

“That’s a bizarre thought because these people don’t get together for dinner in a terrain or environment like that,” Mr. Aziz told CNN. “We had no idea that this would take place.”

Mr. Aziz was miffed that the United States did not notify Pakistani authorities before the air strike. Thousands of Pakistanis have been staging anti-American demonstrations since the attack.

But the nation’s antipathy toward the United States has been tempered by American generosity in the wake of an October earthquake in Pakistan that killed 87,000 people and left 4 million homeless.

“The assistance the United States has given to Pakistan — the Chinooks, the MASH hospitals, the engineers and the financial assistance after the earthquake — has touched the hearts and minds of all Pakistanis,” Mr. Aziz said. “We really appreciate what has been done … ”

Mr. Bush, who last month sent Vice President Dick Cheney to the earthquake zone to review relief efforts, expressed pride that the United States has taken the lead in helping victims.

“It’s hard to imagine the devastation,” the president said. “I was very pleased that the United States, our taxpayers, our military could contribute to helping the people of Pakistan recover. They are our friends, and we consider this friendship to be a vital friendship for keeping the peace.”

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the president and Mr. Aziz spent most of their time yesterday focusing on common ground, not the dispute over the air strike.

“The discussion that I sat in on, both in the Oval Office and the residence, focused on our ongoing efforts to defeat al Qaeda and to prevent attacks from happening, both against Pakistan and against the United States,” he said.

“Now, they also had some private time together in between the two meetings,” he said. “But there was really nothing else to add.”

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