WASHINGTON – In an effort to shore up relations after a widely protested U.S. missile strike in Pakistan, President Bush announced Tuesday that he will be visiting Pakistan and its neighbor India in March.
"I'm really looking forward to going to your country. I'll be traveling to India and Pakistan in March. And I want to thank you for your invitation and your hospitality in advance," Bush told Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz during an Oval Office meeting.
Aziz in turn said he too looks forward to the visit so that he and the president can continue discussions on Islamabad's request to be consulted before the United States hits enemy targets within Pakistani borders.
"We are delighted we are here to share this time with you, and the people of Pakistan and the president and all of our Cabinet and various stakeholders in Pakistan are looking forward to your visit, because we think that this is an important visit for building relations further between our two countries and serving the cause of peace in the world," Aziz said.
Aziz and others in his country have been critical of the United States since intelligence units on Jan. 13 ordered a missile strike on a remote area of Pakistan near the Afghan border. The operation targeted key Al Qaeda members, including the terror group's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said al-Zawahiri seems to have skipped the dinner that was targeted, but officials believe four key Al Qaeda members, including its chief bomb maker, were killed in the strike. Still, the action sparked anti-American protests because 13 civilians, including women and children, were killed in the bombing. Analysts added that the bombing undermined goodwill earned by the United States after its assistance to Pakistan following an October earthquake that killed more than 80,000 and left millions homeless.
Aziz said he wants his country to be consulted, and is working with U.S. officials on improving communications.
"We leave it to our officials," he told The Associated Press, adding that representatives of the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan would meet to discuss the attack in the next few days. "That's the appropriate forum to discuss those issues."
U.S. officials have defended recent missile strikes by saying Pakistan's border region is a toubh part of the world, hard to access or penetrate. When U.S. forces get the information they need, it's important to be able to strike quickly and offensively.
After the meeting, in which the two did not take questions from reporters, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that during discussions at the Oval Office and the residence, the two leaders concentrated on ongoing efforts to defeat Al Qaeda and prevent future attacks in both countries. McClellan added that Pakistan is a "valued ally" but suggested that the United States will not slow its pursuit of terrorists.
"This president has made it clear we're going to pursue terrorists wherever they are — wherever they are. There is no negotiation with terrorists. These are people that are determined to harm innocent civilians in Pakistan, in America and in countries around the civilized world. And the way to defeat them is to take the fight to them and prevent them from carrying out the attacks in the first place," McClellan said.
Despite complaints, Aziz has played down any suggestion that ties between the United States and Pakistan had faltered as a result of the bombing. During a Monday speech he called America "our friend and ally."
"Whenever our relations have declined, both countries have paid a price," Aziz told an audience at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "The stability of the region demands a ... constructive, long-term relationship between our two countries."
Bush and Aziz did not discuss the missile strike during their Oval Office photo op, but the two did emphasize the many areas of cooperation between the two allies in the War on Terror.
"I think the relationship with Pakistan is a vital relationship for the United States, and I want to thank the prime minister and thank the president for working closely with us on a variety of issues. We're working closely to defeat the terrorists who would like to harm America and harm Pakistan," Bush said.
"Let me at the outset say that the assistance the United States has given to Pakistan — the Chinooks, the MASH hospitals, the engineers, and the financial assistance after the earthquake — has touched the hearts and minds of all Pakistanis," Aziz said. He added that Pakistan would like to expand the economic and trade relationship with the United States and wants U.S. assistance in resolving the Kashmir dispute with its neighbor, India.
"We want to see a strong, stable Afghanistan. We are against proliferation of nuclear weapons by anybody. And we want to fight terrorism in all its forms and manifestations," he said.
FOX News' Mike Emanuel contributed to this report.