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Defense Chief: US Ready for Military Operations in Pakistan, If Asked

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says the United States is prepared to conduct joint military operations with Pakistani forces, inside Pakistan, to fight increased al-Qaida activity there. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

Secretary Gates says Pakistani leaders are re-evaluating their security priorities as al-Qaida has begun using its safe havens in western Pakistan to launch attacks inside the country, rather than focusing all its attention on Afghanistan and elsewhere. He says, as that evaluation continues, the United States is ready to help in a variety of ways.

"We remain ready, willing and able to assist the Pakistanis, to partner with them, to provide additional training, to conduct joint operations should they desire to do so," said Robert Gates.

Asked to clarify whether he was saying the United States is ready to send troops into Pakistan, Secretary Gates said this.

"If the Pakistanis wanted to do that, I think we would," he said.

But Secretary Gates added that most of the discussion so far has been about providing counterinsurgency training to Pakistan's army, which has not focused on such capabilities in the past.

"It's obviously been a subject of ongoing dialogue," said U.S. defense secretary. "Pakistan is a sovereign country. They clearly have the right to decide whether or not forces from another country are going to operate on their soil. We will continue the dialogue, but we would not do anything without their approval."

Secretary Gates said he is not aware of any Pakistani request for additional assistance so far.

Currently, the United States has small numbers of military personnel in Pakistan participating in normal military exchanges, and Secretary Gates says the numbers would likely remain small even if there are joint strikes against al-Qaida targets. He also indicated the U.S. government recognizes the potential sensitivity of sending combat troops into Pakistan.

"They have to evaluate the reaction of public opinion in Pakistan and how they would react to such cooperation," he said. "And I think we would take very seriously and clearly defer to their judgment about what works for them."

Secretary Gates could not say whether any plan for enhanced cooperation was discussed during talks this week in Islamabad between Pakistan's new army chief and the senior U.S. military officer responsible for the Middle East and Central Asia.