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Asia Crisis

Petraeus visits Pakistan as it fights "for survival"

ISLAMABAD, Nov 3 (Reuters) - The U.S. commander running the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, held talks on Monday with Pakistani defence officials who told him Pakistan was fighting a war for its survival against militancy.

His visit to Pakistan, apparently his first stop on a foreign tour since taking charge of U.S. Central Command on Friday, highlights U.S. concern about a country seen as crucial to stability in Afghanistan and to defeating al Qaeda.

U.S. analysts say Pakistan is facing a major threat from Islamist militants at a time when the nuclear-armed nation and its new civilian government are engulfed in extraordinarily difficult economic problems.

Petraeus was being accompanied by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Richard Boucher.

Their visit comes as relations between the United States and Pakistan have been strained by a series of cross-border strikes by U.S. forces on militant targets in Pakistan.

The two Americans met Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar on Monday and were due to meet military and other government leaders, including President Asif Ali Zardari, later in the day.

"We discussed the problems we are facing and they were very receptive ... They believe in our government because previously there was more rhetoric than action but now there is more action than rhetoric," Mukhtar later told Reuters.

"They appreciate that we take it as war against Pakistan. It's our war ... we are fighting for our survival," Mukhtar said, referring to Pakistani military offensives in the northwest and a wave of militant bomb attacks.

The most pressing problems for Petraeus include rising insurgent violence in Afghanistan and sanctuaries for Taliban and al Qaeda militants across the border in Pakistan's ethnic Pashtun tribal lands.

The United States and NATO are losing ground against an escalating Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, despite the presence of 64,000 Western troops, while al Qaeda has regained strength in Pakistan's tribal region.

BAD BLOOD

Petraeus has been hailed as an outstanding military leader for helping pull Iraq back from the brink of civil war with a strategy that brought a "surge" of 30,000 extra U.S. troops.

Both U.S. presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, have said they would put more focus on defeating the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan and eradicating al Qaeda from Pakistan's borderlands.

Both candidates have said they would boost U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan from the 33,000 there now.

Mukhtar said they had also discussed cross-border strikes by U.S. forces that have infuriated Pakistan.

Pakistan strongly objects to the U.S. strikes within its territory, saying they are a violation of its sovereignty and undermine efforts to isolate the militants and rally public opinion behind the unpopular campaign against militancy.

"We agreed that this creates bad blood," Mukhtar said of the strikes. "We said that if information is provided to us we will also be able to do that."

The United States has shrugged off Pakistan's complaints over the attacks. It says the attacks are needed to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and kill Taliban and al Qaeda militants who threaten them.

About 20 people, including militants, were killed in the latest U.S. missile strikes on two violence-plagued border regions, North and South Waziristan, on Friday. (Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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