ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani left Saturday on a three-day visit to Washington to defend his government's reluctance to use force against Islamic militants blamed by U.S. officials for soaring violence in neighboring Afghanistan.
The trip comes amid intensifying U.S. pressure for Pakistan, a vital ally in its war on terrorism, to move against strongholds that Taliban and Al Qaeda militants have established in its border regions.
It will be the first visit by Gilani since he came to power following Feb. 18 elections.
Before his departure, Gilani told reporters that Pakistan was fighting the war on terror in its own interests.
"This is our own fight. This is our own cause," he said, noting that his ruling party's leader, Benazir Bhutto, had died in a terrorist attack on Dec. 27.
Gilani's three-month-old government is persevering with efforts to negotiate peace deals along the wild frontier and stabilize a country roiled by Islamist suicide attacks. Force will be used only as a last resort, he reiterated this past week.
"Pakistan's national security and internal stability is paramount," Information Minister Sherry Rehman said. "Pakistan is making its own policy for its own problems."
Gilani's first plunge into the center of American power begins with separate meetings Monday with President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Rice.
His hectic, three-day schedule also includes appointments with lawmakers, academics and journalists. Officials say he may meet with the contenders in November's presidential election, Barack Obama and John McCain.
Gilani, whose government is wrestling with daunting economic problems exacerbated by skyrocketing oil prices, also is to meet with members of Bush's economic team and address business leaders.
But the sharpest questions are likely to address the growing disagreement between Islamabad and Washington over how to counter violent Islamic extremists. Al Qaeda leaders are believed to find sanctuary in Pakistan, while American troops in eastern Afghanistan are facing a spike in cross-border attacks by Taliban insurgents.
On Saturday, local newspapers quoted Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik as saying security forces had arrested between 35 and 40 militants, including an Al Qaeda commander, during a recent operation in the northwestern town of Hangu.
Since taking over from an administration dominated by U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf, the new government has sought peace pacts with Taliban militants.
U.S. officials have voiced support for efforts to woo moderate tribal elders and isolate hard-liners.
Washington also has pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for a drive to bring economic development to the border region that Pakistan hopes will dry up support for extremism. It has funneled more than $10 billion in mostly military aid to Pakistan in the past six years.
But U.S. civilian and military leaders — and the presidential hopefuls — frown on the government's decision to strike cease-fires with militants. They also fear that any agreements — especially clauses on expelling foreign militants and preventing cross-border attacks — will not be enforced.
"We understand that it's difficult, we understand that the northwest frontier area is difficult, but militants cannot be allowed to organize there and to plan there and to engage across the border," Rice told reporters in Australia on Friday. "So yes, more needs to be done."
Musharraf, the former army strongman who sided with the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, launched repeated military operations against militants in Pakistan's tribal belt.
However, the new coalition government argues that Musharraf's reliance on the erratic and heavy-handed use of force ended up strengthening militants and turning their wrath against the Pakistani state.