Clinton reassures a skeptical Pakistan

ISLAMABAD — Amid devastating bombings directed at civilian targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a drive Wednesday to advance Washington's policies in the troubled region by seeking to "turn the page" and convince skeptical Pakistanis that the U.S. aim is security and stability.

In Peshawar, in northwest Pakistan, Islamist insurgents detonated a car bomb in a narrow, bustling bazaar in the heart of the city hours after Clinton arrived, killing more than 100 people and wounding more than 200. The deadliest terrorist strike in Pakistan in two years transformed a market frequented by women seeking cosmetics into an apocalyptic scene of rubble, fire and blood.

Pakistan is reeling from a barrage of terrorist attacks that appear to be a response to the army's offensive in South Waziristan, a region on the Afghan border that's the base for Pakistani extremist groups, Afghan insurgents and al-Qaida. Bombings and gun attacks have struck cities across the country since early this month, killing nearly 300 people.

In Kabul, the Afghan capital, gunmen attacked an international guesthouse early Wednesday where many U.N. employees were staying, killing at least five people, some of whom were in the country to monitor the runoff of a fraud-marred election.

The Obama administration has said that stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a key to U.S. homeland security, but rising casualties among American and NATO forces in Afghanistan and the uncertain outcome of national elections there have raised questions in Congress — and throughout South Asia — about U.S. plans for the region.

Far from considering the U.S. an ally against extremism, many Pakistanis blame the American presence in the region and Islamabad's alliance with Washington for the violence.

The ready weapons, explosives and financing of the extremists who are attacking Pakistan have even led many in the country — including parliamentarians and members of the armed forces — to think that the violence is being orchestrated by other countries, including the United States, showing the gulf of distrust that the Obama administration must bridge.

Clinton, opening a high-profile, three-day visit to Pakistan under intense security, denounced Wednesday's bombings as she appealed for understanding of U.S. efforts to assist the region.