ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Leaders of India and Pakistan meet Thursday in a major effort to thaw relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. If an accord can be reached, it would allow Pakistan to focus on the Islamist extremists on its western border who're a global terrorist menace and a threat to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The meeting between Pakistan's prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, and his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, on the sidelines of a conference in Egypt, could result in an agreement to resume talks or to work toward the resumption of dialogue. Given India's continuing concerns about terrorism originating in Pakistan, the odds are stacked against such a breakthrough.
The move, which the U.S. has pressed for, is timed just ahead of the arrival of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in India.
The November terrorist attack on Mumbai, in which 166 people died and for which Pakistan was blamed, brought the longtime rivals to the verge of war. A four-year "composite dialogue" between the two countries, aimed at resolving disputes and normalizing ties, collapsed.
Pakistani officials Wednesday dampened expectations. "There is a tall order; it is uphill . . . It's sad, I think much more work needs to be done," Salman Bashir, Pakistan's top bureaucrat in the Foreign Ministry, said in Egypt.
U.S. and other Western officials say an easing of tensions on its eastern border with India would allow Pakistan to concentrate its military presence on the lawless tribal territory used by Taliban and al Qaida on the western border with Afghanistan. Mumbai hangs over Indo-Pakistan relations, however, with New Delhi accusing Islamabad of failing to seriously prosecute the planners of the attack and the wider "terrorist infrastructure" on its soil.
"India, as a result of pressure by the Americans, is hopefully seeing the logic of not stiff-arming us, which only plays into the hands of those who went (to Mumbai) to kill," said Zafar Hilaly, a retired Pakistan diplomat. "There has to be an announcement that dialogue will be resumed or it (the meeting) will be a failure."
After the Mumbai attack, Pakistan launched two separate prosecutions of members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the extremist group accused of masterminding the assault, and it also seized land, bank accounts and facilities belonging to the group. Pakistan's crackdown went further than anything it had done before, but it hasn't satisfied India.
"The infrastructure of terrorism must be dismantled and there should be no safe haven for terrorists because they do not represent any cause, group or religion," Singh said in his speech Wednesday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement. "Terrorists and those who aid and abet them must be brought to justice."
Progress in the court cases in Pakistan now holds the key to unfreezing Islamabad-New Delhi ties. Ahead of Clinton's trip to India, Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake said: "We want to see greater understanding and progress, particularly on the issue of Pakistan moving forward on prosecution of those responsible for the Mumbai attacks."
In the one high profile prosecution, Pakistan arrested Lashkar-e-Taiba's leader, Hafiz Saeed, after the Mumbai attack but a court set him free in June, apparently after the authorities failed to provide any evidence against him.
The government is currently pursuing an appeal against that verdict before the Supreme Court, but legal bungling and a lack of evidence have flawed the appeal.
In the second case, five people accused of a direct role in the attack, led by Lashkar-e-Taiba's alleged operational commander, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, face trial in an anti-terrorism court. That trial has been held up for several weeks, awaiting the appointment of a judge to hear it. The case is being heard in secret, and even the charges are not known.
"It boils down to the question of Lashkar (e-Taiba). There is no confidence that Pakistan is willing to act against them," said Suba Chandran, deputy director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, an independent think tank in New Delhi. "They (Pakistan) can't have a pistol to our head and say 'you better talk to us.'"
India aspires to be a global power and a price for that status is settling its disputes with its neighbors, Chandran said. The core of the hostilities between India and Pakistan, which have been to war three times, is a dispute over control of Jammu and Kashmir, a picturesque region in the Himalaya mountains. New Delhi thinks that Lashkar-e-Taiba was a creation of the Pakistani military as a way of pressuring it over Kashmir.
"We believe durable peace in South Asia is achievable. It will be facilitated by the resolution of all standing disputes, including Jammu and Kashmir," Pakistan's Gilani told the summit in Egypt. "The peace dividend for 1.5 billion people in the region would be enormous."
Under Pakistan's previous regime, led by military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf, backchannel diplomacy with India had led to detailed draft agreements on most big disputes, including Kashmir, but New Delhi had hesitated to sign off on them before Musharraf lost power last year. It is widely feared that another major terrorist attack in India, carried out by militants based in Pakistan, would sink the chances of peace.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)
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