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Bush confirms his visit to India and Pakistan in March

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January 25, 2006 03:12 IST

Any speculation in some quarters that President George W Bush's long-awaited trip to South Asia would be exclusively to India, in the wake of the burgeoning strategic partnership between New Delhi and Washington, were quashed by the President himself. 

While welcoming Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz to the White House, President Bush said, "Mr Prime Minister, thank you for coming. I'm really looking forward to going to your country. I'll be travelling to India and Pakistan in March. And I want to thank you for your invitation and your hospitality in advance."

Bush, in brief welcoming remarks in the Oval Office, before he hosted a working luncheon for Aziz and the visiting Pakistani delegation, made absolutely no reference to the January 13 US airstrike in the remote mountain hamlet of Damadola in Pakistan near the Afghan border.

It was apparently targeted to kill Al-Qaeda's number two Ayman al-Zawahiri, but missed him and destroyed three homes and killed at least 13 civilians, including women and children, and has since resulted in massive anti-American rallies in Pakistan.

Aziz himself, during interviews to the New York Times and CNN's Late Edition while in New York before coming to Washington, condemned the attack and asserted that such airstrikes on Pakistani sovereign territory should be at least cleared by the US before they are carried out even though Washington and Islamabad are cooperating in the global war on terror and against the Al-Qaeda network.

Bush said, "We have just had a wide-ranging discussion, which one should expect when we've got a strategic relationship like we have with Pakistan."

He reiterated - "The relationship with Pakistan is a vital relationship for the United States and I want to thank the prime minister and President Pervez Musharraf for working closely with us on a variety of issues.We're working closely to defeat the terrorists who would like to harm America and harm Pakistan."

President Bush said that during their one-on-one meeting preceding the working luncheon, 'We talked about the importance of trade and commerce and investment and we also talked about the global response to the terrible tragedy that Pakistan has gone through. It's hard to imagine the devastation. The country lost 75,000 people; 4 million people were left homeless'.

"I was very pleased that the United States, our taxpayers, our military could contribute to helping the people of Pakistan recover. They are our friends, and we consider this friendship to be vital for keeping the peace," Bush added.

Aziz, in thanking Bush 'for receiving us', declared that 'the United States and Pakistan have a multifaceted relationship, covering a host of areas. It goes back in history, and the people of Pakistan value the relationship very much'.

He conveyed his government and the Pakistani people's gratitude for US assistance to alleviate the aftermath of the devastating earthquake - 'the Chinooks, the MASH hospitals, the engineers and the financial assistance after the earthquake' and informed Bush that this 'has touched the hearts and minds of all Pakistanis - and including your private sector and civil society. We really appreciate what has been done, and it will help restore the lives of the people who've been impacted by the earthquake'.

Aziz said that 'a sense of caring and sharing always builds a better relationship between countries and that's what we are seeing between Pakistan and the United States'.

The prime minister said that besides its relationship with the US, Pakistan also 'strives for peace in our area. It's an area that has a lot of challenges and we are pursuing peace with all our neighbors. We want a solution of all disputes., including the Kashmir dispute. We want to see a strong, stable Afghanistan'.
Aziz also asserted that 'we are against proliferation of nuclear weapons by anybody. And we want to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. There is no good terrorist or bad terrorist, and terrorism knows no borders. Our coalition with the United States in fighting terrorism is very important to all of the world and all of civil society'.
He told Bush that the 'people of Pakistan and the President and all of our cabinet and various stakeholders in Pakistan are looking forward to your visit, because we think that this is an important visit for building relations further between our two countries and serving the cause of peace in the world'.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington DC