Must address "difficult issues" like Kashmir: Zardari

Must address "difficult issues" like Kashmir: Zardari

Backing moves to open up Indo-Pak trade, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari today said the two countries must also address "difficult issues" like the Kashmir dispute.

Making history by becoming the first elected President to deliver a fifth address to a joint session of Parliament of a country that has been under military boots for most of its existence, Zardari faced a hostile House with the opposition booing and jeering to drown most of his epic address.

Amidst a din, Zardari told lawmakers that "important steps have been taken to open up trade between India and Pakistan".

"But we must also address difficult issues, including that of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute," he said in a speech that outlined his government's policies, including foreign policy priorities, for the final year of its five-year term.

In recent months, India and Pakistan have taken several steps to boost bilateral trade.

The Pakistan government recently decided to switch over to a negative list regime for bilateral trade, paving the way for giving India Most Favoured Nation-status by the beginning of next year.

The two countries have also agreed to increase trade to six billion dollars by 2014.

Clad in a dark suit and standing beside a photo of his slain wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, Zardari said that Islamabad was seeking a meaningful engagement with US and was awaiting parliament's nod.

"We seek to engage meaningfully with the US on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect.

"We are looking forward to (parliament's) recommendations for re-engaging with the United States," he said. 

Zardari also pledged to continue fighting terrorism and militancy.

"Where necessary, we have used force to ensure that the writ of the state is not challenged. We will continue to show resolve on this issue. I believe that our efforts have begun to pay off and the situation has improved," he said.

 Militants and extremists have targeted security forces and civilians and even schools and shrines have not been spared by the terrorists, he said.

"Our bases, police stations, pipelines, railways, hotels (and) schools have been targeted. Even our mosques, churches and religious shrines have not been spared," the President said.

Pakistan's image had been "negatively projected" and the economy had to "bear extra burdens", Zardari noted.

"Even the good name of our great religion – a religion of peace and harmony and love – has been exploited. To deal with the mindset of a small minority, we have mobilised our society and tried to generate a national consensus," he added.

Zardari also paid tribute to security personnel and civilians killed in terrorist attacks.The Pakistani Taliban have carried out a wave of bombings and suicide attacks across the country over the past four years.

The government has offered to hold talks with militants who give up violence.

Recent reports have suggested that commanders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan are divided on the issue of holding peace talks, and hardliners led by commander Hakimullah Mehsud have pledged to continue targeting security forces and the government. 

During his address, Zardari focussed on the Pakistan People's Party-led government's achievements since coming to power, including constitutional amendments aimed at restoring the Constitution of 1973, the handing over of the President's powers to the premier and a development package for the insurgency-hit Balochistan province.   

Zardari vowed that the next general election, scheduled for early next year, would be held in a free and fair manner.

"We are starting a new parliamentary year. During this period, we will see a free and fair election," he said.

Legislation had been enacted to "make democracy more transparent and ensure that the elections are fair and free", he said.

He referred to the 20th constitutional amendment which ensures the independence of the Election Commission and the selection of an impartial caretaker government through consultations in parliament.

"This extraordinary legislation will guarantee credible elections, increase confidence in democracy and enhance the image of our country in the world," Zardari said.

Zardari also referred to Pakistan's "unique relationship" with China, which is "deeply rooted and mutually beneficial".

He said his eight visits to China were a "manifestation of taking this relationship to new heights".

Zardari's speech was repeatedly interrupted by slogans and boos from opposition lawmakers, especially the PML-N.

The PML-N members later walked out of the House.

Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, who heads the PML-N government in Punjab province, did not attend the address.