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Clinton promises new page in Pakistani relations

Hillary Clinton's secret three-day visit to Pakistan starts with pledge to refocus the US-Pakistan relationship on the "needs of the people".

ISLAMABAD // US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan on Wednesday, pledging a fresh start in relations with an increasingly embattled and sceptical partner in the struggle against Islamic militancy. "We are turning the page," Mrs Clinton said as she began her first visit to Islamabad in her current position as secretary of state. Mrs Clinton acknowledged that misunderstandings dogged US ties with Pakistan and pledged to refocus the relationship on the "needs of the people" including strengthened economic assistance and development of democratic institutions.

She said several civilian investment deals would be announced during her visit as a sign of Washington's commitment to the country, which has already seen the US pledge to triple assistance to some US$7 billion (Dh25.7b) over the next five years. Mrs Clinton's three-day visit, kept secret out of security concerns, comes amid a surge of anti-US feeling in Pakistan, which is increasingly bloodied in a campaign against Islamic fundamentalists. She said the Afghan conflict ? where US President Barack Obama is due soon to announce whether he will accept his military commander's recommendation to sharply increase US troop levels ? would be one of the subjects discussed with Pakistani officials.

Much of the trip will centre on Mrs Clinton's personal outreach through interviews with the Pakistan media and personal appearances in the "town hall" meetings that have become one of her diplomatic trademarks. Mrs Clinton, who turned 62 on Monday, the same age as Pakistan itself, said she looked forward to bringing the US message directly to the Pakistani people. "We have a relationship that we want to strengthen," she said. "And it is unfortunate that there are those who question our motives, perhaps are sceptical that we're going to commit to a long-term relationship, and I want to try to clear the air on that."

In two Pakistani television interviews conducted before her departure, said she would seek to emphasise the common goals that the American and Pakistani people have in fighting religious extremism. "What do people in Pakistan want? Good jobs, good health care, good education for our children, energy that is predictable and reliable, the kinds of everyday needs that are really at the core of what Americans want," she said.

Mrs Clinton's visit comes amid widespread Pakistani anger over a recent major US aid bill for the country which, despite tripling assistance to Islamabad to some $1.5b per year for the next five years, has still been bitterly denounced for imposing conditions critics say violate national sovereignty. The bill mainly focuses on socio-economic development but also requires Mrs Clinton to certify to Congress that Pakistan is co-operating with efforts to dismantle nuclear weapons, combating militant groups and ensuring civilian government control over the powerful military.

* Reuters

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