US aid sparks criticism in Pak

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan's parliament Wednesday debated a 7.5 billion dollar US aid bill as criticism mounted that money aimed at helping the nation battle Islamist extremism came with too many strings attached.

US Congress last week voted to triple aid to Pakistan over the next five years, with funds earmarked for building schools, roads and democratic institutions -- measures aimed at stemming a growing Taliban insurgency.

But critics in opposition and the military say the bill places too many conditions on the aid, including an attempt to curtail the nation's nuclear programme and putting too much pressure on Pakistan alone to battle militants.

"The bill has put Pakistan and its people in the dock," said Mushahid Hussain, secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the political party aligned with the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

The bill, he said in a statement, accused Pakistan "of all sins under the sun including cross-border terrorism and nuclear proliferation."

A spokesman for the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, said they hoped that the controversies would be addressed in the parliamentary debate, with potential amendments then put to the United States.

"There is a very strong and general impression in Pakistan that the Kerry-Lugar Bill is detrimental to Pakistan's interests and sovereignty," said Siddiqul Farooq, a spokesman for the party led by ex-premier Nawaz Sharif.

A meeting of senior military commanders presided over by army chief General Ashfaq Kayani raised "serious concern" about the bill.

"The forum expressed serious concern regarding clauses impacting on national security," the military said in a statement. "Formal input is being provided to the government," it added without elaborating.

US President Barack Obama has put Pakistan at the centre of his policy to battle Islamist extremists, many of whom are hiding out in Pakistan's border regions and slipping into Afghanistan to attack foreign troops there.

However, he had to tread carefully with the new aid bill after widespread criticism of the previous Bush administration for piling billions of dollars into Pakistan's military under Musharraf, with little accountability.

The new bill prevents the funding from being used to support extremists or to attack neighbouring countries -- namely arch-rival India -- and calls for a cut-off in assistance if Pakistan fails to crack down on extremists.

Columnist and analyst Nasim Zehra said the bill laid out in "intrusive details" how Pakistani security forces were meant to battle insurgents.

"The bill essentially declares Pakistan the hub of terrorism that has hit the entire region and puts the onus of fighting terrorism on Pakistan," she wrote in a column in English-language daily The News.

She also criticised a stipulation in the bill which says that Pakistan must give the US access to citizens associated with nuclear supply networks.

The ruling Pakistan People's Party defended the package.

"The bill acknowledges Pakistan as a critical friend and ally and also the profound sacrifices it has made in the war on terror," Farhatullah Babar, spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari, said in a statement.

At a meeting Tuesday with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, meanwhile, Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi insisted the US government has "no intentions of micromanaging Pakistan."