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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon has proposed transferring U.S. military equipment from Iraq to Pakistani security forces to help Islamabad step up its offensive against the Taliban, according to officials and government documents.
The Pentagon request for the authority to "transfer articles no longer needed in Iraq" to the army of Pakistan received a cool reception in the U.S. Congress, where some questioned what safeguards would ensure the arms would not end up being diverted to Pakistan's border with India, a nuclear-armed power like Pakistan.
The inclusion of Pakistan in the request, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, underscored the high priority the Pentagon places on freeing up equipment the Pakistani army says it needs to mount ground operations in South Waziristan and other Taliban strongholds bordering Afghanistan.
But the push-back from Capitol Hill also put a spotlight on deep congressional skepticism about aiding Pakistani security services which some still see as playing both sides in Washington's war with the Taliban.
In addition to the possibility of transfers from Iraq, the Pentagon is considering expanding programs under which Washington procures equipment for Pakistani forces through third governments, or leases them U.S. equipment at nominal rates, sources briefed on the discussions said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The Pentagon declined to comment on Pakistan's inclusion in the proposal, first raised with key congressional committees in June.
Under the proposal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates would have the authority to "transfer both excess and non-excess defense stocks, along with defense services in connection with the transfers," to the three governments. He already has some authority to transfer equipment deemed as "excess."
The Pentagon did not say in its request to Congress what equipment would become eligible for transfer as U.S. forces gradually leave Iraq. U.S. combat troops pulled out of Iraqi cities and towns in June, and all U.S. forces are due to move out by the end of 2011.
Pentagon officials said a review was under way to determine what equipment could be left behind in Iraq and transferred to allies. "The secretary believes we've got to be more flexible, more responsive, more rapid in our dealings with friends and allies around the world, particularly militaries we're trying to develop quickly," said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell.
Gates has praised Pakistan's "success" in recent operations against militants in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, and the Pentagon has made the procurement of more military equipment a priority, though officials says the effort is going slowly because some of the items are no longer in production.
While favored by Pakistan's military and political leaders, expanding U.S. military assistance is a highly contentious issue in the country due to widespread anti-U.S. sentiment.
One of Washington's concerns is that Pakistan will put off indefinitely a post-Swat push into South Waziristan, the main base for Pakistani Taliban fighters loyal to Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a CIA missile strike last month.
With U.S. troop strength growing in Afghanistan, the United States wants Pakistan to take hold of Waziristan and other Islamist militant enclaves on its side of the border and prevent Taliban fighters from crossing into Afghanistan.
The Pakistani army has been battling militants in parts of the northwest, but it has made clear to Washington that a major Waziristan offensive would likely have to wait months, possibly until spring, because of shortages of Cobra attack helicopters, protective gear, precision weapons and other equipment.
"We're working as quickly as we can," a defense official said when asked when the military equipment sought by Pakistan would arrive. But he said its army can still "keep the battle rhythm up ... We believe they have the ability to do that."
U.S. officials acknowledge that a major offensive in Waziristan would require a far larger commitment from Islamabad than what it made in Swat.
According to U.S. defense officials, Pakistan has moved about one-third of its forces from the border with India toward Swat and other western provinces threatened by the Taliban. The shift in personnel, officials said, would have to increase sharply to accommodate a ground operation in Waziristan.
Daniel Markey, an expert on the region with the Council of Foreign Relations, said a major offensive in Waziristan was unlikely because the Pakistani army would have to be willing to "attack, stay, and take serious casualties".
He said Pakistan was unlikely to change its current strategy of attacking militants largely from the air -- "more divide and conquer than clear, hold, build."
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Mohammad Zargham