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Clinton, after agonizing, will go to Pakistan
(Recasts, adds background) By David Storey
WASHINGTON, March 7 (Reuters) - After agonizing for months on the political and diplomatic implications, President Bill Clinton announced on Tuesday he would include Pakistan on a trip to India and Bangladesh later this month.
"The president's decision reflects the importance of making efforts to continue dialogue with an important nation of the region despite our serious concern about the lack of an elected government there," a White House statement said.
Clinton, who has offered to mediate between India and Pakistan in their conflict over Kashmir, has been concerned that a Pakistan visit would be seen as endorsing Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a coup last October. The statement said the president would meet with Pakistani leaders to discuss a return to civilian democratic rule, the need to fight terrorism and measures to avoid a nuclear and missile arms race in the region.
Clinton will travel to India and Bangladesh during the week of March 20. The White House did not give a date for the Pakistan visit, but Pakistani newspapers have said he would stop at an air base near Islamabad after leaving Bombay on March 25.
Planning for the visit, which was postponed in 1998 after India staged a nuclear test and Pakistan quickly followed suit, has been disrupted by the coup that ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Washington imposed new sanctions on Pakistan after the coup and has since pushed Musharraf to take steps to restore democracy and rein in what Washington calls support for "terrorism" in the region.
Pakistan has maintained good relations with neighboring Afghanistan, whose Taleban rulers give haven to Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born militant accused by Washington of masterminding attacks on U.S. targets around the world.
In recent months, there has even been pressure in some U.S. circles to declare Pakistan a state supporter of terrorism, particularly after the hijacking of an Indian airliner which was linked to Pakistan-based Kashmiri militants.
But Clinton is acutely conscious of the need to strike a balance between Pakistan, Washington's long-time ally during the Cold War, and India, with whom the United States has begun to develop closer ties.
He is also anxious to personally encourage the two countries to rein in their nuclear ambitions and sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
Gen. Anthony Zinni, who oversees U.S. military forces in the region and has repeatedly visited Pakistan, said Washington must deal with the military government or risk isolating the country and pushing it toward extremism.
"When the U.S. isolates the professional Pakistani military, we deny ourselves access to the most powerful institution in Pakistani society," Zinni said.
"This may hamper our nonproliferation and counterterrorism efforts. Furthermore, in the larger strategic sense, Pakistan can play a stabilizing role in the region," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"Gen. Musharraf, I know him well," he said.
"He would like to bring back democracy -- in his words, true democracy, not just in name only. He has a daunting task," said Zinni, head of the U.S. Central Command.
© copyright 2000 Reuters, Ltd.
-- Possible Impact (email@example.com), March 07, 2000