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Pakistan's Sharif sends mixed message to U.S.

| Monday, May 13, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

RAIWIND, Pakistan — Pakistan's presumptive prime minister said on Monday that he wants good relations with the United States, but criticized American drone strikes on militants as a violation of the country's sovereignty — perhaps hinting the government's grudging compliance may change.

A devout Muslim and a populist, Nawaz Sharif is expected to supplant President Asif Ali Zardari as the international face of Pakistan following his party's resounding victory in Saturday's election. He is set to rule over a nuclear power whose increasing instability and Islamic militant havens are global concerns, especially at a time when the West is looking to end the war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Sharif, 63, often hit out at the United States in statements while lobbying for votes, and he accused the outgoing government ruled by the Pakistan People's Party of selling out the country's sovereignty in exchange for U.S. aid.

However, analysts have cautioned that while such rhetoric sells on the campaign trail in a country where anti-American sentiment is high and where the drone strikes are extremely unpopular, Sharif is likely to take a more nuanced approach to U.S. relations once in office.

Sharif reinforced that sense with his first comments since the vote about how he viewed the relationship with the United States.

“I think we have good relations with the United States of America. We certainly have to listen to each other,” said Sharif. “If there are any concerns on any side, I think we should address those concerns.”

Pakistan and the United States have had an extremely fraught relationship in recent years, especially following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani army town in 2011.

Sharif's supporters believe his pro-business background and years of experience in government make him the right person to tackle the country's many economic woes, such as growing power cuts, painful inflation and widespread unemployment.

His stance on reining in violent Islamic extremism, however, remains uncertain.

Critics have accused his Pakistan Muslim League-N party of being soft on radicals because it hasn't cracked down on militant groups in its stronghold of Punjab province.

Even if Sharif wanted to shut down the U.S. drone program, he would have to contend with the wishes of the Pakistani army, which is considered the strongest institution and often plays a dominant role in national security.

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