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U.S. envoy has 'useful dialogue' with anti-American Pakistani leader

The Islamist politician speaks warmly to Holbrooke, then drives off to a demonstration against the U.S. presence in the region. The talks illustrate the Obama approach to foreign policy.

August 19, 2009|Paul Richter

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Obama administration officials have pledged to talk to world leaders no matter their views. On Tuesday, they showed that the offer extends to Islamists who spend the day denouncing America from the street corners.

U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke met with Liaqat Baloch, a leader of Pakistan's Jamaat-i-Islami party. About an hour later, as the bearded scholar prepared to depart for an anti-American rally across town, the veteran diplomat said that despite their disagreements, the meeting had begun "a very useful dialogue."

Pakistan is eager for U.S. aid, but many people are wary of U.S. intentions. Jamaat-i-Islami has limited leverage in the government, but it is one of the most influential Pakistani Islamist parties, and its anti-American views are widely shared, U.S. officials say.

One of Holbrooke's aides described the conversation as a major outreach effort for the United States, roughly equivalent to talking to the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist party that Washington shuns.

On Monday, Holbrooke ate pastries and exchanged views under a languidly whirling fan in the sitting room of another outspoken Islamist politician, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, a leader in the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party. Rehman was instrumental in the Taliban's early days, U.S. officials say, and denies that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Holbrooke, the U.S. senior representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, is on his fifth official visit to the region. He will be in Afghanistan for the country's elections Thursday.

Under President Obama, the U.S. is reaching out to groups that the Bush administration dealt with little or not at all. Holbrooke met Monday with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Bush officials kept at a distance because of what they believed were his ties to militant groups.

Baloch spoke warmly to Holbrooke after the meeting. Then he drove off to a party-sponsored demonstration a mile away in an Islamabad market to protest the U.S. presence in the region.

Holbrooke has received a generally warm reception for his proposal this week that the fast-growing U.S. aid program put more emphasis on Pakistan's faltering power sector. But the trip has also underscored Pakistani wariness of the United States.

Baloch pressed Holbrooke on one of the most passionate issues of the moment, suspicions that a planned expansion of the U.S. Embassy is aimed at turning the compound into a military base. Baloch has charged that the United States has a secret plan to build a military "cantonment" as a prelude to trying to seize Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

Suspicions about such a base have generated dozens of news stories recently, despite diplomats' insistence that they are adding 16 acres only to accommodate staff members needed to help implement the U.S. aid program, which is to grow fourfold in the next 18 months.

A Pakistani journalist challenged Holbrooke in a group interview Monday to explain why the United States wanted to build "a fortress in the middle of the capital."

Holbrooke invited Baloch to come to the embassy to examine the blueprints. "We have no secrets on this," he said.

Baloch told Holbrooke that he welcomed Obama's declarations that he wants a better relationship with the Muslim world. But he insisted that, with American drone strikes in Pakistan and troops in Afghanistan, "there still is no change in the practice."

Holbrooke contended that the new administration had changed policy from the Bush days in "dozens" of respects. He said the administration had halted the effort to eradicate Afghan poppy crops, tightened rules on Afghan military strikes to avoid civilian casualties, and was increasing economic aid to Pakistan.

But Holbrooke insisted that he wouldn't support a withdrawal from Afghanistan, as Baloch wanted, until the country was no longer at risk of descending into turmoil.

Holbrooke and other U.S. officials contend that Pakistanis' attitudes about the threat of Islamic extremism are shifting toward Americans' views. But they also acknowledge that they are keenly concerned about the anti-Americanism that has shown up in recent opinion polls. "This relationship carries a lot of baggage," Holbrooke said.

Holbrooke has heard a number of Pakistani officials press for more American aid. The Pakistan foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, expressed his happiness with the new U.S. administration, but also complained that American aid was slow in coming.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

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