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Pakistan's new leader signals opening to Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, put the "war on terror" at the top of his agenda and signaled a major thawing in relations with Afghanistan Tuesday at a swearing-in ceremony where Afghan leader Hamid Karzai shared center-stage.

As Zardari was inaugurated, President Bush promised to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan and told Pakistan had a "responsibility" to fight extremists "because every nation has an obligation to govern its own territory and make certain that it does not become a safe haven for terror."

Zardari, 53, took his oath of office in a short but emotional ceremony in the vast presidential palace in Islamabad, with a portrait of his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto, on one side and a picture of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan's first elected leader, on the other. Zardari and Benazir Bhutto's three children, Bilawal, Bakhtawar and Asifa, had flown into the country for the event and the children sat proudly in the front row. Benazir Bhutto was killed in December.

The inauguration of Zardari completed Pakistan's transition to democracy, after nine years of military rule and raised hopes that the country's political crisis will stabilize to enable the new government to focus on Islamic extremism and the severe economic downturn.

The only foreign leader present was Karzai, head of a neighboring country with which Pakistan has had uneasy, sometimes hostile, relations in recent years. Karzai has repeatedly accused Pakistan of aiding the Taliban insurgents trying to oust his government and providing them with sanctuary in Pakistan's wild tribal area, which lies along the Afghan border.

But Karzai unexpectedly joined Zardari for a news conference after the oath-taking ceremony, where they pledged to jointly fight the militants who threaten both countries. It surprised many that the new president allowed his big day to be overshadowed by the issue of Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan. But Karzai's presence diverted many reporters from asking awkward questions of Zardari, such as whether he would return the presidency to a figurehead position or restore the chief justice fired by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

"Pakistan and Afghanistan are like twins conjoined. They are inseparable and that is why both are suffering from the same troubles, by the same evils," said Karzai, who later suggested it was a new beginning for relations with Pakistan.

Earlier this year, Karzai had been so troubled by the safe haven provided to the Taliban in Pakistan's tribal area that he threatened military action on Pakistani soil. He also openly accused Pakistan's intelligence services of complicity in the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July. India and the U.S. also have alleged that elements in Pakistan are backing extremists.

Zardari promised to work with other countries in the region against militancy and said his government had a comprehensive plan. "We stand with our neighbors," Zardari said. "Yesterday's war may not have had the people behind it, but today's war does have the people of Pakistan. In fact, it has the president of Pakistan, who himself is the victim of terrorism."

Pakistan's policy towards Afghanistan and its own homegrown militants, however, is usually decided by the military, not the government. There are signs that Washington is satisfied with its current cooperation with the Pakistan military, but it is unclear whether the Pakistan army has altered its view that the Karzai regime is too close to arch-enemy India.

Despite Zardari's claims that the public backs the anti-terror fight, most Pakistanis appear to oppose the use of force to combat extremists and to see this as "America's war." There has been an angry reaction in Pakistan to recent U.S. attacks in its tribal area, including a ground assault last week that was documented for the first time. Zardari's sudden closeness to "brother" Karzai raised suspicions in Pakistan that the bond had been forced by Washington.

"It is obvious the whole thing has been engineered," said Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul. "The new government is going even two steps ahead of Musharraf and allowing the Americans to strike (Pakistani) targets at will. They don't seem to realize the fall-out on the public."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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