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US Envoy Says Pakistani Contacts 'Perfectly Natural'

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations says he was surprised by recent press reports that said senior Bush administration officials were angry over his unauthorized contacts with Pakistani presidential candidate Asif Ali Zardari. From United Nation's headquarters in New York, VOA's Margaret Besheer has more.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad says he has a wide network of contacts and friends around the world, many he has known for decades before becoming President Bush's ambassador to Afghanistan in 2003, then Iraq in 2005 and for the last year and a half, to the United Nations.

"Just because I'm a government official now doesn't mean that I should end those friendships and relationships I've had with many people, particularly from the region of the broader Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan," said Zalmay Khalilzad. "These contacts and relationships have been useful for the United States, but at the same time I'm experienced enough to know the difference between being a channel of these friends on behalf of the United States or having social contacts."

Reports last week in The New York Times and Washington Post charged that senior State Department officials were angered that Khalilzad had spoken by telephone several times with Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and now himself a candidate for president.

As U.N. Ambassador, Khalilzad has no direct responsibility for U.S. relations with Pakistan.

The stories alleged that the envoy was providing the politician with "advice and help", at a time when U.S. officials are trying to remain neutral as Pakistanis elect a successor to President Pervez Musharraf.

Ambassador Khalilzad dismissed the reports, saying his contacts with the Bhutto family have been mostly "social" and "perfectly natural" and that he has not provided Zardari with any political advice. He added that when on the rare occasion a policy-related issue was raised, he reported it to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other relevant U.S. officials.

When the reports were published last week, the administration said Ambassador Khalilzad had the full confidence of President Bush and Secretary Rice.

There has also been much media speculation that Khalilzad, who is Afghan by birth, is considering a run for the presidency of that country, to succeed his long-time friend President Hamid Karzai.

"I am the permanent representative of the United States to the United Nations," he said. "I am proud of the job that I have here, of having representing the United States, and continuing to represent the United States. I'm an American. I have no plans - I am not a candidate - I have no plans of becoming a candidate, and when I leave here I will work in the private sector."

Ambassador Khalilzad also dismissed reports that he has formed a group to raise money for such a presidential bid.