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U.S. tries to mend rift with Pakistan

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration scrambled diplomatically yesterday to repair the damage caused by a NATO air assault that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, hoping Pakistan won't play spoiler in the U.S.-backed plan to shore up Afghanistan's security and bring international forces home.

Senior State and Defense Department officials were reaching out to their counterparts in Islamabad, while the first battlefield accounts suggested that NATO and Pakistani forces may have attacked one another in a tragic case of mistaken identity, with each believing the other was Taliban.

A U.S. investigation was under way into the incident, the deadliest among allies in the decade-long fight against al-Qaida and other extremist groups along the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. Its findings may not come fast enough as Pakistani repercussions are already mounting: closed border crossings for NATO supplies and troops, and yesterday's decision by Islamabad to withdraw from a U.S.-backed meeting on Afghanistan taking place next week in Bonn, Germany.

"Pakistan has a crucial role to play in supporting a secure and stable and prosperous Afghanistan," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "It's absolutely critical that Afghanistan's neighbors play a role in its future development, and certainly its relationship with Pakistan has been critical in that regard."

The breakdown of the U.S.-Pakistani partnership comes at a critical time, only weeks after a high-level delegation traveled to Islamabad. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus went to patch up the relationship marred by fights over the arrest of a U.S. intelligence contractor, the American operation to kill Osama bin Laden, and repeated disagreements over the links between Pakistani intelligence and militant groups in Afghanistan.

Last week, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn reported improved cooperation along the border and a tapering in incidents of gunfire from Pakistani territory.

Officials also have described better U.S.-Pakistani understanding at the political level, which will only become more significant as the United States pulls its troops out of Afghanistan in the next three years and relies on Pakistan to broker reconciliation talks between the U.S.-backed Afghan government and the Taliban-led insurgency.

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