WASHINGTON, July 30: Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday welcomed bipartisan support in the US for long-term socio-economic relations with Pakistan, a day after a Senate panel committed a $15 billion aid package for the country.

“This legislation also has the support of President Bush who is eager for democracy to succeed,” he said. Mr Gilani said the endorsement of the aid package was “an extraordinary recognition” of the need to broaden and strengthen US-Pakistan relations beyond military ties.

“The Biden-Lugar plan, the Reconstruction Opportunity Zones programme and the Fata social development plan, taken together, are a clear and bold signal to the people of Pakistan that not only is Pakistan back in business, but the United States is standing with it in a long-term, mature relationship,” the prime minister said.

The legislation, however, would withhold military aid unless the US State Department certified that Pakistani soldiers were making “concerted efforts” to engage Al Qaeda and Taliban forces and are not interfering in politics or the judiciary.The bill will now go to the full Senate and then to the House of Representatives before it can be implemented. But the approval by the Senate panel is seen as a major success for Pakistan. Such bills are usually scrutinised at the committee level and a full house seldom changes the suggestions made by a panel.Since the aid package for Pakistan was approved unanimously by both Republican and Democratic senators, it is unlikely to face much resistance in a full session.

Diplomatic observers in Washington say that by approving the package in the presence of Prime Minister Gilani, the US Senate has sent a clear message to Islamabad that it strongly backs the new democratic set-up.

Two senior Senators – Joseph Biden, a Democrat, and Richard Lugar, a Republican – presented the bill in the US Senate last month, urging Congress to increase US assistance to Pakistan to assure the Pakistani people that Washington desired a long-term engagement with Islamabad.

“We can’t keep jumping from one crisis to the next, relying on exceptional diplomats and military officers to save us from disaster,” said Senator Biden while explaining his proposal to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We need a new strategy, to set the relationship on a stable course.”

The bipartisan legislation authorises $1.5 billion dollars annually for development purposes, such as building schools, roads and clinics, for five years, beginning 2009.

The legislation, “Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2008”, also advocates an additional $7.5 billion over the subsequent five years.

The non-military aid is a major shift in the US-Pakistan relations with the bill authorising a figure more than triple the current levels of non-military funding.

Senator Biden said the package demonstrated that the US was not a fair-weather ally but an all-weather friend of Pakistan.

“The ten-year timeframe is intended to address persistent Pakistani fears that the US is interested in a short-term tactical and highly transactional relationship,” he said.

The bill urges reorientation of engagement towards the Pakistani people rather than merely towards the Pakistani government (civil or military).

The bill has also urged accountability and transparent reporting of the Coalition Support Funds and directs the secretary of state to develop a comprehensive strategy for the Afghan-Pakistan border.

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