US races to trump militants in getting aid to Pakistan flood victims

US effort to help victims of the Pakistan flood is likely to expand beyond the $10 million already pledged, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Flood-stricken Pakistanis wait outside a relief center to receive food supplies on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, Wednesday. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah spoke about America’s image in Pakistan, saying the US with its assistance was demonstrating to Pakistanis that 'we are in this for the long haul.'
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The United States is in a race with militant organizations in Pakistan to respond first and most effectively to the millions of Pakistani people who are the victims of the worst monsoon flooding in nearly a century.

As part of the US campaign, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday spoke not only of the expanding US response to the floods, but of the terrorist actions some groups are carrying out even in the disaster zone.

Calling attention to a suicide bombing Wednesday morning in Peshawar, near the center of the worst flooding in Pakistan’s northwest, Secretary Clinton said, “Violence like this is abhorrent at any time, but especially at this time of crisis for the Pakistani people.”

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The bombing killed three people, including a senior police official. Elsewhere in the flood-stricken northwest, reports were emerging of extremist groups, including the Pakistani Taliban and a militant religious organization linked to the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, coming to flood victims’ aid.

In a statement made from the reception hall outside her State Department office, Clinton emphasized that the aid the US is providing – from search and rescue equipment and disaster assessment teams to food, water purifiers, and prefabricated bridges – is being closely coordinated with the Pakistani government. The US on Monday pledged $10 million for flood relief, but Clinton suggested Wednesday the figure would climb as more disaster aid is administered.

She also hinted at some degree of independence from the perspective of a government that is not always held in high regard by its own people. The government of President Asif Ali Zardari has come in for criticism over a slow and uncoordinated response to the flooding. Mr. Zardari has been lambasted for leaving the country for visits in European capitals during the worst natural disaster of his fragile presidency.

In describing the crisis, Clinton said an estimated 1,500 people had lost their lives – using a statistic that Pakistani nongovernmental relief organizations are citing, but that surpasses the government toll of 900.

The Pentagon announced Tuesday that four Chinook helicopters would be dispatched to help in the disaster relief. Two smaller Black Hawks were also dispatched. The military equipment is to be deployed at the discretion of the Pakistani government, according to the Pentagon, given the Pakistani government’s sensitivity to any suggestion of a US military presence in the country.

But US officials say the deployment of the Chinooks, giant helicopters that can evacuate large numbers of injured people or deliver substantial supplies, was requested by the government. Chinooks were dispatched to Pakistan in 2005 after a major earthquake.

Clinton referred to the 2005 aid effort and said the current campaign reflects an ongoing “partnership” with the people of Pakistan. At the same time, US officials skirted questions about the strength of such a “partnership” when surveys in Pakistan regularly show extremely low regard for the US.

Appearing with Clinton, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah sidestepped a question about America’s image in Pakistan, saying the US with its assistance was demonstrating to Pakistanis that “we are in this for the long haul.” The effect of the “large-scale and comprehensive” relief effort by the US would be to demonstrate “a long-term and enduring commitment,” he said.

Some skeptics of the US campaign to reach Pakistani hearts and minds through disaster aid and other assistance note that America’s poor image prevails despite massive aid after the 2005 earthquake and a multibillion-dollar program of development and education assistance approved last year.

Apparently betting that many Americans favor humanitarian aid in moments of crisis, Clinton noted that individuals can make their own $10 donation to Pakistan flood relief by texting the word “swat” to the number 50555. The money goes to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to provide shelter, food, clothing, and other supplies for Pakistan flood relief.

Clinton demonstrated on her own cellphone. “I just texted a contribution myself,” she said, adding, “I urge Americans to join this effort and send some much-needed help to the people of Pakistan.”

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