By Chris Allbritton and Missy Ryan
ISLAMABAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States moved to ease tensions with Islamabad on Friday, telling Pakistan it would not send ground troops to attack militant positions in North Waziristan even as anti-American protests flared around the country.
The demonstrations by religious parties broke out in several Pakistani cities just a day after political leaders joined in rejecting U.S. accusations that Islamabad was supporting militants.
A senior U.S. official told Reuters on Friday that "there will be no boots on the ground" in Pakistan, a message he said "has been communicated to them (the Pakistanis)."
Charges by Admiral Mike Mullen, President Barack Obama's top military adviser, that Pakistan's spy agency had supported this month's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul triggered a diplomatic fusillade over the past week.
Mullen, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, softened his rhetoric on Friday, telling a ceremony marking the end of his tenure that the U.S. relationship with Pakistan was "vexing and yet vital."
"I continue to believe that there is no solution in the region without Pakistan, and no stable future in the region without a partnership," said Mullen, who sometimes referred to himself as Pakistan's best friend in the U.S. military.
Obama acknowledged on Friday that Pakistan's relationship to the militant Haqqani network, believed responsible for the Embassy attack, is murky. But he urged Islamabad to tackle the problem anyway.
"The intelligence is not as clear as we might like in terms of what exactly that relationship is," Obama said in a radio interview, when asked about the Haqqani network.
"But my attitude is, whether there is active engagement with Haqqani on the part of the Pakistanis or rather just passively allowing them to operate with impunity in some of these border regions, they've got to take care of this problem," he said.
The United States has long pressed Pakistan to pursue the Haqqanis, one of the most lethal Taliban-allied Afghan groups fighting Western forces in Afghanistan.
Pakistan denies it supports the Haqqanis and says its army is too stretched battling its own Taliban insurgency to go after the network, which has an estimated 10,000-15,000 fighters.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to an audience in Little Rock, Arkansas, said Pakistan had a history of trying to distinguish between "good terrorists" that it could use for its own strategic purposes and "bad terrorists" that are working against it.
"I think it's important that we appreciate their perspective about where we both are now. That in no way excuses the fact that they are making a serious, grievous strategic error supporting these groups," she said.
The diplomatic flare-up has added to anti-American sentiment in a country, where a poll in June showed that almost two-thirds of the population considered the United States an enemy.
"The prevailing view in Pakistan is that because of our alignment with the United States, our problems have increased," said Talat Masood, a retired general and military analyst.
"America's view is the opposite: 'Because you are not aligning yourself with us, your problems are increasing.'"
"This is the whole dilemma at the moment," he said.
In Hyderabad, about 900 people from an anti-Shi'ite group whose militant arm has been accused of killing thousands of Pakistani Shi'ites since the 1990s, burned an effigy of Obama and chanted "America is a murderer."
Other protests took place in Lahore and Peshawar.
MULLEN COMMENTS CONDEMNED
Dozens of political parties emerged from a conference on Thursday to condemn Mullen's accusations of state links to violent militants as "baseless allegations."
They also pledged to seek a political settlement with militants on both sides of the border.
"There has to be a new direction and policy with a focus on peace and reconciliation," their declaration read. "Pakistan must initiate a dialogue with a view to negotiate peace with our own people in the tribal areas."
The Haqqani network says it no longer has havens in Pakistan, feeling secure enough to operate in Afghanistan. Pakistani military officials say "no more than 10 percent" of the thousands of fighters operate in Pakistan and the rest are in Afghanistan.
Obama sent a letter to leaders of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on Friday saying he was staying the course with his Afghan war plan.
"We continue to implement the strategy and do not believe further modifications or adjustments to the metrics, resources, or authorities are required at this time," Obama wrote.
(Additional reporting by Qasim Nauman in Islamabad, Hamid Shaikh in Hyderabad, Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar, Athar Hussain in Karachi and Paul Eckert and Andrew Quinn in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Thatcher and Xavier Briand)