Pakistan parliament set to take up US-Pakistan ties

Reuters, Saturday 17 Mar 2012

New terms of engagement with US to be revealed by Pakistan's parliament that includes re-opening of supply lines to US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan after five months of border skirmishes with NATO forces

Pakistani policemen stand guard near the parliament building where Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari addressed the joint session in Islamabad March 17, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)

Pakistan's parliament is set to finally reveal new terms of engagement with the United States next week, almost five months after a cross-border skirmish with NATO forces that left 24 Pakistani soldiers dead and ties at their lowest in years.

The new terms will likely include the re-opening of supply lines to US-led NATO troops in Afghanistan, closed since 26 November, but with many new qualifications and restrictions, a prominent opposition lawmaker told Reuters on Saturday.

"Broadly, all the parties agree on this," said Ayaz Amir, an opposition member of the National Assembly who sits on its foreign affairs and defence committees. "I don't think anyone is in favour of permanently blocking off NATO routes. There will be riders, qualifications, and the military will have a heavy input in this."

The National Security Committee's recommendations are almost certain to be accepted by parliament when they are finally issued later this week, given that it has been working on the new terms for months with heavy input from the military.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari briefly talked about the alliance as he addressed the opening of a joint session of parliament.

"Pakistan-United States relations are multi-dimensional and important. We seek to engage meaningfully with the US on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect," he said.

"We are looking forward to your recommendations on re-engaging with the United States."

His speech was marked by loud jeering and anti-Zardari slogans from opposition lawmakers, who walked out in protest part way through the speech.

It was Zardari's fifth time to address parliament, more than any previous civilian president of the unstable, nuclear-armed South Asian nation which has a history of coups.

Pakistan has been directly ruled by its military for more than half of its 64-year history and indirectly for much of the rest. It largely controls foreign and security policies, and has taken the lead in relations with the United States.

"All of this, the break in relations, the army viewpoint is colouring Pakistan's response," said Amir, a member of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) faction headed by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He spoke to Reuters just before Zardari's speech.

Relations with the United States reached a crisis point after the November incident in which NATO aircraft killed 24 Pakistani troops. Pakistan shut down NATO supply routes into Afghanistan and demanded an apology.

The United States expressed regret for the loss of life and accepted the bulk of the blame, but has not apologised.

Zardari could be the first civilian president to serve a full five-year term, having so far weathered numerous political crises and showdowns with both the military and the Supreme Court.

Still, his governing coalition has a secure majority in parliament and is unlikely to face much resistance.

"Regardless of the opposition these recommendations face when they are presented before parliament, the government has a majority and will not face difficulties affirming them," Amir said.

"I think it should be done within a week, that's my expectation."

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