Zardari meets Obama, Clinton; discusses Afghanistan, terrorism

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Lalit K Jha

Washington, Jan 14 (PTI) US President Barack Obamatoday met visiting Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari atthe White House and discussed with him efforts in combatingterrorism and achieving stability in Afghanistan.

Zardari is on a two-day unofficial visit to Washingtonto attend the memorial service of Richard Holbrooke, Obama''sformer special envoy to the Af-Pak region, who died last monthat the age of 69.

"The discussion focused on our shared efforts to fightterrorism and promote regional stability, specifically on theimportance of cooperating toward a peaceful and stable outcomein Afghanistan," the White House said after the meeting thatlasted for more than 30 minutes.

Obama told Zardari that he is looking forward tovisiting Pakistan later this year, the White House said.

"The President underscored the importance of the US-Pakistan relationship and our continued support for Pakistan,"it said.

Pakistan''s Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani told abriefing after the meeting that both leaders agreed to furtherstrengthen bilateral relations.

"No body said Pakistan was not doing enough. Nothingnegative was said about either country," he said.

Haqqani was the only Pakistani official to haveaccompanied Zardari for the Obama meeting at the Oval office.

Obama was accompanied by Secretary of State HillaryClinton and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, besides hiscounter-terrorism advisors.

The Obama-Zardari meeting comes within days of theIslamabad visit of US Vice President Joe Biden, where he metthe top Pakistani leadership, including Zardari.

White House officials said Zardari would be comingback to Washington later this year on an official visit.

Obama too has announced that he would be travelling toPakistan later this year. Dates of both the visits have notbeen announced so far.

Farhatullah Babar, spokesperson to President Zardarisaid that the talks between the two leaders focused onterrorism, democracy, economic reforms and assistance toPakistan in its fight against militancy.

During the meeting, Zardari said it was imperativePakistan was assisted by the international community,especially the US, in the fight against militancy byaddressing the economic problems of the country.

Specifying the economic assistance needed thePresident said that support to Pakistan in overcoming theenergy crisis and allowing greater market access to its goodswere critical elements to overcome economic problems and forwinning the long term fight against militancy. .

According to a statement, Zardari said the problem of militancy and extremism faced by Pakistan and the region wascreated and nurtured collectively by the internationalcommunity decades ago to defeat the rival ideology.

Once the rival ideology was defeated the internationalcommunity left Pakistan, Afghanistan and the region at themercy of the militants it had nurtured initially for thepurpose of defeating the rival ideology, he said.

Zardari during the meeting, highlighted the need forgreater market access to Pakistani goods in the US andEuropean markets and called upon the US administration to useits influence in pleading its case in this regard.

He reiterated Pakistan''s call for the establishment ofReconstruction Opportunity Zones in the country that wereneeded to open new vistas of economic opportunities, seekingthe need to expedite ROZs legislation.

Babar said the meeting was helpful in furtherpromoting mutual understanding of the issues concerning thetwo countries and to provide impetus to multifaceted andlong-term relations between the two countries.

They also underscored the importance of forging acomprehensive partnership between the two countries, Babarsaid.

Pakistan''s controversial blasphemy law also came upduring the talks between Zardari and Obama.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said the twoleaders talked about the overall relationship of theircountries, as well as the economic situation in Pakistan.

"They talked about the blasphamy law," he said.

The blasphemy law is at the centre of debate inPakistan ever since a Christian woman was sentenced to deathunder it.

The former Governor of Punjab province Salmaan Taseerwas gunned down recently by his security guard who claimed hewas upset by the former''s assertion that the law needs to bechanged.

The Pope has also called for the repeal of the law inPakistan but such criticism has not gone down well withextremists in the country.

Hardline religious parties and extremist groups,including the Jamaat-ud-Dawah, organised rallies across Punjabprovince today to protest Pope Benedict''s call for the repealof the law.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said he hopesZardari would have a longer visit later this year.

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