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Amid Power Outage Protests, Pakistan Stresses US Aid Role

Angry Pakistani protesters seen after setting electrical company office on fire in Gujranwala, near Lahore, Oct 3, 2011.

With U.S. - Pakistan ties in a delicate period, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani stressed the importance of U.S. energy aid in maintaining his country's stability.

His remarks come in the face of growing unrest over frequent power outages, as opposition parties move to align themselves with demonstrators who accuse the federal government of mismanaging the country's power supply.

Protests concentrated in Pakistan’s Punjab province began to spread nationwide Tuesday, as demonstrators expressed anger at frequent power outages. They say the situation has worsened over the past several years.

Residents of many major urban areas complain of 20-hour-long daily blackouts. Beyond ordinary inconvenience, Pakistani medical facilities say the frequent outages hinder efforts to treat illness, particularly an acute outbreak of dengue fever in the east. Businesses have also been severely affected.

Addressing lawmakers late Monday, Prime Minister Gilani pointed to the unrest to underscore the urgent need for U.S. assistance.

Gilani said he warned the U.S. two years ago that electricity shortages could result in riots, and that if Washington was looking for Pakistan’s friendship it should help resolve the country’s energy issue. Gilani noted that the U.S. signed a nuclear deal with India, even though Pakistan was in greater need of a civilian nuclear deal.

Citing nuclear weapons proliferation concerns, Washington ruled out a civilian nuclear deal with Islamabad similar to the one it made with India in 2005.

The Gilani government promised that the power supply situation would improve within days.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, leader of Pakistan’s largest opposition party, dismissed that promise as “hollow”. Sharif called on fellow opposition members to join the street protests. He put blame for the outages squarely on mismanagement by the central government.

Sharif complained that the government has been in power for more than three and a half years but continues to drag its feet. Its insensitivity is a crime, the former prime minister said, adding that it is incomprehensible that the government is sitting idle while the country experiences its worst outages ever.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $125 million in U.S. energy assistance during her visit to Pakistan two years ago. The special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, is due to arrive within weeks to discuss the issue further.

“His meetings with a full range of Pakistani officials will discuss … civilian assistance, support for their energy and agricultural and health sectors, very strong military-to-military relationship, and other regional issues,” explained Mark Stroh, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

Grossman’s meeting is scheduled to take place amid growing demands for cuts in U.S. aid to Pakistan by American lawmakers, who accuse the Pakistani military of covertly supporting groups that attack U.S. forces in Afghanistan.