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Fearing unrest, Pakistan seeks more U.S. flood aid

At least 1,600 are dead and millions are homeless after monsoon rains bloated rivers, submerged villages and triggered landslides in Pakistan.

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Map of Pakistani districts affected by flooding
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Pakistan wants the United States to supply immediately dozens more helicopters and significantly more money and supplies to help deal with the widespread flooding that has affected at least 14 million people there, senior Pakistani officials said Monday.

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Pakistan's plea is fueled by concerns that the government's inability to provide relief quickly could boost the appeal of militant groups that have rushed to supply aid in the country's northwest. Visible U.S. assistance, the officials said, could help reverse currents of anti-Americanism.

The United States has already diverted six Chinook transport helicopters from the Afghanistan war to Pakistan over the past 10 days for rescue missions and aid delivery. It has also sent hundreds of thousands of prepackaged military meals and a pledge of more than $40 million in disaster assistance, far more than any other country.

'Risk mitigation'

A senior U.S. military official said transfer of additional helicopters, which are in short supply in Afghanistan, would require a political decision in Washington. "Do they exist in the region? Yes," he said. "Are they available? No."

"It's a question of risk mitigation," the official said. "Helicopter lift is critical to the mission" in Afghanistan, where road transport is difficult and dangerous, he said. "It's not like we have a great surplus of helicopters in theater that are not engaging."

A White House official said that Pakistan has not delivered a formal request for more helicopters or vastly increased aid, but that "we are, of course, trying to respond to every request and to assist as best we can as it becomes evident what it is that they need."

The Obama administration has carefully calibrated its assistance to Pakistan over the past year to win popular support without exacerbating Pakistani suspicions of expanded U.S. military and intelligence activities.

In 2005, when U.S. helicopters rescued thousands of people after an earthquake in Kashmir that killed 73,000 people, the popularity of the U.S. military in Pakistan briefly surged. But the floods, while taking fewer lives so far, are much more widespread and promise upheaval that will last longer across most of the country.

The unprecedented floodwaters that have overtaken villages throughout the northwest part of the country are quickly rising across the southern plains as the Indus, Kabul and Swat rivers overflow their banks.

Clinging to rooftops

With the monsoon rain showing no sign of abating, the government estimates that 1,600 people have been killed, 650,00 homes have been destroyed, and more than 50,000 square miles are under water in a disaster still in its early stages.

"Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of other people are inaccessible: clinging to rooftops, swept away," Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said. "The rains are continuing," he said, and the Sukkur dam, which holds back the Indus River from the agricultural plains of Sindh province, "is in danger." He added: "If it breaks, the situation will reach an even more catastrophic level."

Holbrooke said the administration is calling on other governments to help and is trying to mobilize the business community while pressing for individual contributions via a text-message system the State Department has set up. But, he said, "I'm concerned that perhaps people think that it's just another one of the endless tragedies that Pakistan endures."


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