Obama reaches out to religious parties in Pakistan

Obama reaches out to religious parties in Pakistan
* Baloch welcomes change in tone towards Muslims
* Holbrooke rejects JI’s complaints about western assault on Islam
Daily Times, August 20, 2009

ISLAMABAD: US President Barack Obama has started reaching out to some of the country’s most fervent religious and anti-American parties, including one alleged to have given rise to the Taliban.

Obama’s special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, is initiating dialogue between the US and religious parties previous administrations had largely shunned, both sides said. “The purpose is to broaden the base of US relations in Pakistan beyond the relatively narrow circle of leaders Washington has previously dealt with,” explained Vali Nasr, senior adviser to Holbrooke. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN during the Bush presidency, questioned Holbrooke’s timing for trying to engage Taliban sympathisers on the eve of elections in neighbouring Afghanistan, where US forces are battling the hard-line extremist group. “As a general proposition, democracy in Pakistan is fragile enough now that negotiating with people that some on the democratic side of the Pakistani spectrum would consider terrorists strikes me as fairly risky,” Bolton said. “What we ought to be doing is making sure that our ties with the military are strong because the gravest risk is radical penetration of the military,” he added.

Change in tone: At one of this week’s sessions, Liaquat Baloch, a top member of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, told Holbrooke he welcomed the new administration’s public change in tone towards Muslims around the world. But Baloch said he was disturbed to see “no change in practice” in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Obama has stepped up military operations against the Taliban on both sides of the border. Holbrooke invited the JI, which some US officials compare to the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, to visit the heavily guarded US embassy compound in Islamabad, seeking to dispel long-running rumours that thousands of US Marines would be based there.

Not true: Holbrooke rejected the party’s complaints about a Western “assault” on Islam, saying “that could not be further from the truth” with Obama, who has roots in the religion. Fazlur Rehman, whose Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam party was active in rousing support for the Taliban in 1990s, also got an audience with Holbrooke and his team. reuters


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