updated 3/18/2004 3:32:12 AM ET 2004-03-18T08:32:12

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday the United States was elevating U.S. military ties with Pakistan, granting the country benefits enjoyed by only a handful of allies outside the NATO alliance.

The new status will make Pakistan eligible for priority delivery of defense material and for the stockpiling of military hardware.

By giving Pakistan the status of "major non-NATO ally," the United States builds on an already vibrant military relationship between the two countries.

Powell announced the change during a joint news conference with Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri while Powell neared an end to a three-day swing through South Asia.

He was to meet with President Pervez Musharraf before his early afternoon departure. Earlier, he visited India and Afghanistan.

Other major non-NATO allies of the United States are Japan, Australia, Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, South Korea, Argentina, New Zealand and the Philippines.

The new measures could assist the Pakistani military as it pursues remnants of al-Qaida and the Taliban which are believed to be hiding out in the western regions of Pakistan.

Powell has welcomed stepped up activities in recent days by the Pakistani military in these areas. The Pakistani Army said 24 suspected terrorists were killed in a battle on Tuesday.

"We are committed to a long-term relationship with Pakistan," Powell said, with Kasuri standing at his side.

He noted that the United States is providing Pakistan with $3 billion in assistance over five years and also has granted the country $1.5 billion in debt relief.

"The alliance is crucial to winning the war on terrorism," he said.

Among other issues, Powell said he discussed the status of Pakistan's investigation into the black market network that proliferated nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya and Iran. The network was led by A.Q. Khan, considered by many Pakistanis to be a national hero for his role developing nuclear weapons.

The investigation is an "internal matter" for Pakistan, Powell said, suggesting that the United States is content to allow Pakistan to carry out its investigation without American participation.

Kasuri said he assured Powell that it was in Pakistan's "own interest as a nuclear power that no proliferation take place and that we are going to spare no effort to try and make efforts to pull this out root and branch wherever this network is."

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