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Pakistan's prime minister visits President Obama in White House

Oct. 23, 2013 at 6:26 PM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, Oct. 23 (UPI) -- Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met Wednesday with President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden hours after urging an end to U.S. drone strikes.

"We agreed that we need to find continuous ways to work together," said Obama after the 2-hour meeting in the Oval Office. "I emphasized that the U.S. considers Pakistan to be a very important strategic partner. We spent a lot of time talking about the economy. We're going to be exploring ways to deepen the trade between both our countries."

"Mr. President, I admire your statesmanship, your wisdom and your commitment to peace," said Sharif, who said he raised the issue of ending drone strikes by the U.S. military in Pakistan. It was their first face-to-face meeting although they have talked by phone previously.

Earlier, Sharif had breakfast with Biden at the vice president's official residence, reconfirming bilateral ties between the two countries.

A White House statement said Biden "reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to strengthening bilateral ties in support of a strong, democratic, prosperous Pakistan." The Pakistani Embassy said the two leaders discussed issues of mutual interest.

Sharif, in a speech Tuesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace, outlined what he called the "vivid and daunting" challenges facing the people of Pakistan.

"This is a new and confident Pakistan, but I am not oblivious of the daunting challenges that we have inherited," said Sharif, who took office for the third time in June. "The economy is very badly affected by the surge of terrorism."

He said the greatest challenge facing Pakistan comes from terrorism and that Pakistan has "been a victim of the scourge from hundreds of suicide attacks that have killed 40,000 people in the past decade.

"I am, however, aware that the greatest challenge to Pakistan comes from terrorism and extremism, but Pakistan is neither the source nor the epicenter of terrorism as is sometimes alleged," he said.

Sharif said Pakistan is the victim of a weak economy but major reforms are in place to privatize major state-owned enterprises and improve infrastructure.

"We are not here to get aid," he said. "We just want to trade with America. Your respect is very dear to us and so is our own respect."

He called for greater interaction between the United States and Pakistan on a wide range of issues to ensure peace and security in the region.

"Moreover, despite the planned drawdown [of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan], there will be a continuing need for close cooperation between the two countries, especially in Afghanistan," he said.

Sharif spoke out against the drone strikes after the rights group Amnesty International issued a report highly critical of the U.S. campaign designed to eliminate militants using their Pakistani sanctuaries to launch attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

"They have deeply disturbed and agitated the people," he said in Washington Tuesday. "I would therefore stress the need for an end to drone attacks."

U.S. officials say Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region, where some of the recent drone strikes have occurred, has long been a sanctuary for al-Qaida terrorists and the Haqqani network militants, blamed for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan.

One of Sharif's objectives during his U.S. visit is to convince Obama and other U.S. leaders the drone program stands in the way of bilateral relations, which have been rocky in recent years, although the United States considers Pakistan an ally in the fight against terrorism.

Sharif, in his speech, said bilateral relations should be based on mutual respect, while noting the drone campaign is a violation of Pakistan's territorial integrity, the state-run Associated Press of Pakistan reported.

"This issue has become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship -- I would, therefore, stress the need for [an] end to drone attacks," he said.

The Amnesty International report said the United States appeared to have committed serious human rights violations with its drone program in Pakistan resulting in civilian deaths and urged U.S. authorities to end it.

Ahead of Sharif's visit, Washington decided to release more than $1.6 billion in military and economic aid to Pakistan. The aid was suspended after relations hit a low following the U.S. raid in 2011 in which al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was killed in his compound in Pakistan.

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