ISLAMABAD // US Vice President Joe Biden delivered a bold message of support for key anti-terror ally Pakistan during a trip to Islamabad on Wednesday, telling the country that America is "not the enemy of Islam".
In a joint press conference with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Biden said their discussions had been "extremely useful" before he turned to address anti-American sentiment, fanned by the ongoing war in Afghanistan and a covert US drone campaign.
"There are... some sections in Pakistani society and elsewhere that suggest America disrespects Islam and its followers," Biden told reporters at the prime minister's residence.
"We are not the enemies of Islam and we embrace those who practise that great religion in all our country," he added.
As Biden wrapped up his visit, a suicide blast in the northwest town of Bannu killed 18 people, most of them security officers, and injured 15 in an attack claimed by the Taliban as revenge for US missile strikes in the area.
Biden said militancy in Pakistan was a threat to both countries, and he referred to the killing last week of Punjab governor Salman Taseer, who was shot dead by his bodyguard over his outspoken opposition to strict blasphemy laws.
The confessed killer has been hailed a hero by religious conservatives and rallies have been held across the country in his honour.
"Societies that applaud such actions end up being consumed by those actions," Biden said.
Biden delivered his message before leaving for a key meeting with army chief General Ashfaq Kayani.
"A close partnership between Pakistan and its people is in the vital self-interest of the United States of America and, I would argue... in the vital self-interest of Pakistan as well," Biden said.
"My hope is, God willing, if I'm able to stand here next year with you, that we're able to point to greater progress and greater resolve and greater prosperity for your people and mine," Biden said, concluding his speech.
Gilani applauded "very fruitful discussions" with the US vice president.
US officials have sought to smooth an often rocky relationship with Islamabad with promises of huge non-military aid donations on top of its military assistance, to help the nuclear nation develop its fragile economy.
US officials have announced they will fast-track part of a 7.5-billion-dollar five-year aid package to help the country recover from devastating floods last year.
The government in part blames the diversion of national resources to fight militancy for its raft of economic woes, which include a huge fiscal deficit and crippling fuel and energy shortages.
Zardari is also due to visit the United States this week, officials in Islamabad have said, in the wake of a major domestic political crisis that has further weakened his fragile coalition government.
Pakistan won US praise after it mounted an offensive against homegrown Taliban extremists in the South Waziristan region in late 2009.
But a White House report to Congress in October stated bluntly that Pakistan had not confronted Afghanistan's Taliban, in what experts see as a bid by Islamabad to preserve influence over its northern neighbour.
Biden arrived in Pakistan from Kabul, where he met President Hamid Karzai for talks that included discussing the presence of US troops serving in Afghanistan as part of an international force of some 140,000.