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Senate committee cuts Pakistan aid over conviction of doctor
WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel expressed its outrage Thursday over Pakistan's conviction of a doctor who helped the United States track down Osama bin Laden, voting to cut aid to Islamabad by $33 million -- $1 million for every year of the physician's 33-year sentence for high treason.
The punitive move came on top of deep reductions the Appropriations Committee already had made to President Barack Obama's budget request for Pakistan, a reflection of the growing congressional anger over its cooperation in combating terrorism. The overall foreign aid budget for next year had slashed more than half of the proposed assistance and threatened further reductions if Islamabad failed to open overland supply routes to U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Pushing aside any diplomatic talk, Republicans and Democrats criticized Pakistan a day after the conviction in Pakistan of Shakil Afridi. The doctor ran a vaccination program for the CIA to collect DNA and verify bin Laden's presence at the compound in Abbottabad where U.S. commandos found and killed the al-Qaida leader in May 2011.
"We need Pakistan, Pakistan needs us, but we don't need Pakistan double-dealing and not seeing the justice in bringing Osama bin Laden to an end," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who pushed for the additional cut in aid.
He called Pakistan "a schizophrenic ally," helping the United States at one turn but then aiding the Haqqani network, which has claimed responsibility for several attacks on Americans. The group also has ties to al-Qaida and the Taliban.
"It's Alice in Wonderland at best," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. "If this is cooperation, I'd hate like hell to see opposition."
One of the most forceful statements came from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. She pointed out that Pakistan has suffered at the hands of terrorists yet misconstrued what is treason in convicting Afridi. She also insisted that Afridi was not a spy.
"This conviction says to me that al-Qaida is viewed by the court to be Pakistan," said Feinstein, who said it made her rethink U.S. assistance.
The Appropriations Committee approved Graham's amendment to cut the assistance by $33 million on a 30-0 vote. The full Senate will vote on the overall bill, possibly this summer.
At the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States believes Afridi should be released.
"His help was instrumental in taking down one of the world's most notorious murderers that was clearly in Pakistan's interest as well as ours and the rest of the world," Clinton told reporters, adding that the United States will continue to press the issue with Islamabad.
In crafting the overall legislation, the committee reduced Obama's request to aid Pakistan by 58 percent as resentment and doubts linger on Capitol Hill a year after bin Laden was killed deep inside Pakistan. Tensions between Washington and Islamabad have increased as Pakistan closed overland supply routes to Afghanistan after a U.S. attack on the Pakistani side of the border killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
The United States and Pakistan failed to resolve the issue at the recent NATO summit in Chicago.
The congressional anger over the conviction and the supply routes extended to the Senate Armed Services Committee, which completed a $631.4 billion defense budget Thursday. The panel added a provision stipulating that before Pakistan can be reimbursed with coalition funds, the secretary of defense must certify that Pakistan is opening and maintaining the supply routes, is not supporting the Haqqani network, and not detaining or imprisoning Pakistani citizens, according to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
He referred to the conviction as a virtual death sentence.
The fierce congressional response in various committees "shows a common outrage," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters.
Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee also complained about mafia-style extortion by Pakistan in seeking truck fees in exchange for opening the supply lines. The cost had been $250 per truck before the attack. Pakistan is now demanding $5,000 per truck. The United States has countered at $500.
The bill would provide just under $1 billion in aid to Pakistan, including $184 million for State Department operations and $800 million for foreign assistance. Counterinsurgency money for Pakistan would be limited to $50 million.
The legislation also conditions the counterinsurgency aid on Pakistan reopening the supply routes.
Islamabad won't get any of the funds for counterinsurgency or money in prior legislation unless the secretary of state certifies to the Appropriations committees that "the government of Pakistan has reopened overland cargo routes available to support United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops in Afghanistan, and funds appropriated under this heading can be used efficiently and effectively by the end of the fiscal year," the legislation says
If the secretary can't certify to Congress, the money would be transferred to other accounts.
The overall legislation would fund the State Department, foreign operations and other programs at $52.1 billion, which is $2.6 billion less than what Obama requested for the 2013 fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 and $1.2 billion below current spending.
Wading into the dispute over Palestinian refugees, the panel approved a version of an amendment from Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., that would require the secretary of state to submit a report to Congress on the number of Palestine refugees who were displaced by the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, the number of descendants and who receives assistance from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
The issue of whether to count refugees and their descendants is a divisive one. Some 5 million Palestine refugees receive assistance from the U.N. agency. A third of registered refugees live in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
The State Department and Jordan opposed the original Kirk amendment and it was modified by Leahy.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington contributed to this report.