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Powell has delicate task in trip to India, Pakistan

Peshawar demonstration
The U.S. campaign has sparked demonstrations like one these children attended Sunday in Peshawar, Pakistan.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell faces a tough challenge this week in his visit to the Asian subcontinent as he tries to promote stability in a troublesome region that could explode if delicate balances in the U.S. anti-terror war are not maintained.

Powell will make stops in India and Pakistan, neighbors that have been at each other's throats for decades. Territorial, cultural and religious disputes routinely have led to violence, resulting in two significant wars, countless border skirmishes and a nuclear arms race.

U.S. officials rate Pakistan's cooperation in the war on international terrorism as essential. As the campaign against Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime and the al Qaeda network continues, logistical, political and intelligence support from Pakistan, Afghanistan's neighbor to the east, will remain crucial.

Indian restraint will be just as critical as hostilities continue in Afghanistan, observers in the United States and on the subcontinent said.

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Setting the scene for Powell's trip, the State Department said the secretary had two missions in mind preparing for departure. One was to thank Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for his government's cooperation and the other was to cool down the dispute between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region.

"We have to seize the moment," said Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Powell, he said, wants to "probe the minds of the Pakistanis and the Indians to see if there is not a way to lower the temperature."

Muslims are a majority in the Indian-administered states of Jammu and Kashmir. With India governing much of Kashmir, Pakistan said one of its pressing national priorities is gaining control of the entire region. China, which borders Kashmir to the northeast, is also active in the dispute.

Islamic fundamentalist terror groups are active in Kashmir. One such group, based in the Pakistan-controlled part, detonated a car bomb in a local government seat in early October, claiming 40 lives.

Additionally, a videotaped statement released Saturday by an al Qaeda spokesman warned the United States to cease cooperating with Hindus in Kashmir, referring to the Indians.

The State Department may soon officially designate Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group thought to be responsible for the bloody car bombing, as an international terror organization.

Senior administration officials told CNN that Powell planned to caution India not take any action against Pakistan as it presses the United States to hold Pakistan responsible for supporting fundamentalist Islamic groups.

Musharraf's decision to offer support to the United States has placed him in a delicate spot with fundamentalist Pakistani Muslims, many of whom have launched daily demonstrations that have led to violence in several cities.

Musharraf has tried to calm the situation by explaining that cooperation with the United States could give Pakistan leverage against India in the Kashmir dispute, and he has expressed hope that the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan will be short.

Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Pakistani Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said the Pakistani government expected a full report on the Afghan campaign from "soldier-statesman" Powell when he arrives in Islamabad.

"We would like to hear his assessment of the situation after 10 days of military action," Sattar said, "... and his prognosis of how long this is going to go on. I think you will appreciate concerns of the people are rising about innocent people [killed] in the military attacks."

Senior administration officials said that Powell would offer assurances to Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that they are both "on the same side" of the U.S. coalition.

These officials said that while Powell will acknowledge differences between the two, he will pressure them to avoid provocation. The discussions, they said, will include consideration of how to reduce anxiety over Kashmir but likely will not include any proposals for a solution to the dispute.

Powell arrives in Pakistan on Monday. Sattar told CNN that security would be tight for his visit -- which will include a trip to southern Pakistan, where many violent anti-American demonstrations have taken place recently.

-- CNN's Ian Christopher McCaleb and Elise Labott contributed to this report.


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