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Pakistani PM-elect raps U.S. drone strikes

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RAIWIND, Pakistan -- Pakistan's presumptive prime minister said Monday he wants good relations with the United States but criticized American drone strikes on militants as a violation of the country's sovereignty -- perhaps hinting the government's grudging compliance may change.

A devout Muslim and a populist, Nawaz Sharif is expected to supplant President Asif Ali Zardari as the international face of Pakistan following his party's resounding victory in Saturday's election. He is set to rule over a nuclear power whose increasing instability and Islamic militant havens are a global concern, especially at a time when the West is looking to end the war in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The 63-year-old Sharif often hit out at the U.S. in statements while lobbying for votes, and he accused the outgoing government ruled by the Pakistan People's Party of selling out the country's sovereignty in exchange for U.S. aid.

However, analysts have cautioned while such rhetoric sells on the campaign trail in a country where anti-American sentiment is high, Sharif is likely to take a more nuanced approach to U.S. relations once in office.

Sharif reinforced that sense Monday with his first comments since the vote about how he viewed the relationship with the U.S. -- a key issue since Washington relies on Islamabad for help in fighting Islamic militants and negotiating an end to the Afghan war.

"I think we have good relations with the United States of America. We certainly have to listen to each other," said Sharif. "If there are any concerns on any side, I think we should address those concerns."

Pakistan and the U.S. have had an extremely fraught relationship in recent years, especially following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani army town in 2011. The U.S. didn't tell Pakistan about the operation beforehand, and the government was outraged at the breach of its sovereignty.

Even before the raid, the U.S. accused Pakistan of supporting Taliban militants who use the country's rugged northwest tribal region to launch cross-border attacks against American troops in Afghanistan -- allegations denied by Islamabad.

The relationship has improved somewhat over the last year, but U.S. drone attacks targeting Taliban and al-Qaida militants in Pakistan's tribal region continue to create serious friction between the two countries.

The strikes are extremely unpopular in Pakistan, where many people believe they mostly kill innocent civilians -- something Washington denies.

"Drones indeed are challenging our sovereignty," said Sharif. "I think this is a very serious issue, and our concern must be understood properly."

But Pakistan has a long history of officials condemning the strikes in public and supporting them in private and how aggressively Sharif pushes the U.S. may depend on how much he needs it in other areas.

Pakistan relies on the U.S. for hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year. More importantly, Pakistan would likely need U.S. support to get a bailout it desperately needs from the International Monetary Fund because of the government's shaky financial situation.

Sharif spoke with reporters at his palatial estate in the rural town of Raiwind near the eastern city of Lahore. The estate is filled with acres of plush lawns and manicured gardens, where scores of majestic peacocks roam freely. The inside of his house is opulently decorated in a style reminiscent of Louis XIV and features two stuffed lions -- the symbol of Sharif's party -- at the entrance to his living room.

Sharif's supporters believe his pro-business background and years of experience in government make him the right person to tackle the country's many economic woes, such as growing power cuts, painful inflation and widespread unemployment.

His stance on reining in violent Islamic extremism, however, remains uncertain.

Critics have accused his Pakistan Muslim League-N party of being soft on radicals because it hasn't cracked down on militant groups in its stronghold of Punjab province.

Even if Sharif wanted to shut down the U.S. drone program, he would have to contend with the wishes of the Pakistani army, which is considered the strongest institution in the country and often plays a dominant role in national security issues.

The army is known to have supported the drone program in the past. That co-operation has decreased over time as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated. Many analysts believe there is still grudging acceptance of the strikes -- both because of U.S. aid and because of the harm it would do to the relationship if Pakistan really put its foot down.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 14, 2013 A11

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