The US Congress moved on Tuesday to suspend a bid by President George W Bush's administration to shift millions of dollars in aid to Pakistan from counter-terrorism programmes to upgrading Islamabad's F-16 fighter jets.
"We have requested a hold on the administration's planned reprogramming pending additional information," said a joint statement by Democratic lawmakers Howard Berman and Nita Lowey, who head key panels in the House of Representatives.
"We are concerned that the administration's proposal to use military assistance to pay for the F-16 upgrades will divert funds from more effective counterterrorism tools like helicopters, TOW missiles, and night-vision goggles," said Berman, chairman of the House foreign affairs committee, and Lowey, chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee on foreign programmes.
The White House said last week that it wanted to shift 230 million dollars in aid to Pakistan from counter-terrorism programmes to upgrading Pakistan's aging F-16 fighter jets.
The move, it said, was aimed at easing fiscal pressures faced by the Pakistani government stemming partly from soaring food and energy costs.
US lawmakers were reportedly angered by the move. They felt that Pakistan did not use its F-16s in support of the campaign against fighters in its remote tribal areas out of a fear that civilian casualties could fuel support for extremists.
US President George W Bush held talks with Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani on Monday focused on cooperation to fight Taliban and al-Qaida extremists and easing Pakistan-Afghanistan tensions.
Gilani, whose new government has been facing intense US pressure to crack down on Pakistan-based militants, told reporters after the meeting that Pakistan was committed to fighting extremists.
The package for the F-16 fighters would run about two-thirds of the $300 million that Pakistan will get this year in US aid for military equipment and training, the Times said.
The 2008 fiscal year state and foreign operations bill that passed Congress last December specifically required that military aid to Pakistan be used for counter-terrorism and law enforcement activities directed against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, according to lawmakers Berman and Lowey.
The hold requested by the legislature would "provide time for Congress to make a more considered judgment in consultation with the administration and the government of Pakistan," their statement said.
Requests for a hold by lawmakers are usually abided by the administration, congressional aides said.
Berman and Lowey also said that they were proposing that Congress provide $200 million in economic assistance to Islamabad to relieve some of Pakistan's budgetary constraints.
"This will help Pakistan set its own spending priorities while preserving US military aid for its intended purpose -- counterterrorism activities against al-Qaida and the Taliban."
"We are committed to helping Pakistan's new democratic government address the current economic crisis, brought on by rising food and fuel prices, which has impacted its ability to fund its F-16 upgrades," the lawmakers said.