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Obama signs Pakistan aid into law

WASHINGTON, Oct 16 – President Barack Obama signed a 7.5 billion dollar aid package for Pakistan after the US Congress acted to placate critics in the strife-torn nation who warned it violated Pakistani sovereignty.

Obama’s move followed days of disputes over the package, which sparked a showdown between Pakistan’s government and its powerful military.

Tensions in Pakistan are mounting with a wave of attacks over the past 11 days have left 170 dead, the latest a double suicide attack on a police compound in which 11 died.

The US package aims to help the Pakistan government, a key ally in the battle against Al-Qaeda, meet the insurgent challenge by tripling non-military US aid.

"This law is the tangible manifestation of broad support for Pakistan in the US, as evidenced by its bipartisan, bicameral, unanimous passage in Congress," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said in a statement.

The measure offers 1.5 billion dollars a year for five years to improve Pakistani schools, to fund groups that defend the rights of women and children, and to train and modernize the Pakistani peace force.

It also provide for funds for efforts to cement civilian control in nuclear-armed Pakistan, and supports voter education, civil society and improvements in the functioning of parliament.

Some leading political voices in Pakistan balked at what they saw as conditions on how the money could be spent, including calls for action in curtailing the anti-Indian militant movements Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed.

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The bill also called for a cut-off in security assistance if Pakistan fails to crack down on extremists.

The requirements sparked uproar in the Pakistani parliament, and were used by opponents of the government’s alliance with the United States to hammer President Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistan’s foreign minister delivered an impassioned defence of the package on Friday, insisting the legislation would help the fight against Islamist militants.

"This will enhance our counter-insurgency capability," Shah Mehmood Qureshi told parliament after returning from Washington with written guarantees the package would not violate Pakistan sovereignty.

"The legislation does not seek in any way to compromise Pakistan’s sovereignty, impinge on Pakistan’s national security interest or micro manage any aspect of Pakistan’s military or civilian operations," said Qureshi.

In Washington, the minister held talks with Senator John Kerry and Representative Howard Berman, who head committees handling foreign relations in Congress, to get a document stating that the plan did not impose conditions or infringe on Pakistani sovereignty.

The lawmakers’ statement said the aid was meant "to forge a closer collaborative relationship between Pakistan and the United States, not to dictate the national policy or impinge on the sovereignty of Pakistan in any way."

"Any interpretation of this act which suggests that the United States does not fully recognize and respect the sovereignty of Pakistan would be directly contrary to congressional intent," it said.

Obama signed the bill hours after militants unleashed coordinated attacks on Pakistani police in which 40 people died, storming offices in Lahore and bombing a police station in Peshawar. Two suicide bombers attacked a police compound in Peshawar again on Friday killing another 11 people.

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The assaults underscored the power of armed radicals to strike in the heart of Pakistan, and the weakness of poorly equipped security forces, despite promises of a new offensive against the Taliban.

White House deputy spokesman Bill Burton said Obama was "always concerned when there’s a loss of innocent civilian life."

"This shows once again that the militants in Pakistan threaten both Pakistan and the United States," Burton said, adding that Obama had been encouraged by recent actions by the Pakistani military to tackle extremists.

State Department deputy spokesman Robert Wood meanwhile extended US sympathy to victims of the attacks, and honored "brave Pakistani military police and security personnel who are fully engaged in combating these extremists."

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