Afghanistan is optimistic that regional power Pakistan will help the Kabul government advance a reconciliation process with the Taliban, the Afghan president's spokesman said Saturday.

Pakistan, seen as crucial to efforts to end the war in Afghanistan, has repeatedly said it wants peace in its neighbour.

Afghans, however, have always been suspicious of Pakistani intentions because of historical ties between Pakistani intelligence and insurgent groups like the Afghan Taliban.

Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan were strained for months after the assassination in September of Afghan peace envoy and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Afghan officials blamed Pakistan's intelligence agency, allegations angrily denied by Islamabad.

But talks this week between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leaders in Islamabad were encouraging, said Karzai's spokesman, Aimal Faizi.

We noticed a big change among the Pakistanis. The atmosphere is much better, Faizi told Reuters in Islamabad. We are more optimistic than before that they will support us.

Faizi said Karzai made several demands when he met top Pakistani officials.

He would not list them but Afghanistan is known to want access to Taliban leaders belonging so the so-called Quetta Shura, named after the Pakistani city where it is said to be based.

They would be the decision makers in any substantive peace negotiations.

CHANGE IN MOOD

Pakistan has consistently denied giving sanctuary to insurgents and denies the existence of any Quetta Shura, or leadership council.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar said after a recent trip to Kabul that a lot of ill will between Kabul and Islamabad had eased.

And she indicated Pakistan would encourage militant groups seeking to topple the U.S.-backed Kabul government to pursue peace if asked by Afghanistan.

The apparent change in mood comes at a critical time when the Afghan government is exploring ways to reach the next stage of reconciliation -- negotiations with the Taliban. So far, there have only been contacts, Afghan officials say.

The Afghan Taliban announced last month it would open a political office in Qatar, suggesting it may be willing to engage in negotiations that could likely give it government positions or official control over much of its historical southern heartland.

Karzai's government supports any talks that take place in Qatar, but it wants to widen the reconciliation process to other countries because that could make the effort more comprehensive.

Faizi said Afghanistan had a preference for holding the next phase of the reconciliation process in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

We want these two countries to facilitate the real (formal) talks, he said.

Saudi Arabia has had some influence in Afghanistan since it supported mujahideen fighters against Soviet occupation forces in the 1980s. It has maintained a close relationship with Pakistan.

During his trip to Islamabad, Karzai also met opposition politicians and religious leaders.

Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, a cleric who heads a Pakistani seminary where senior Afghan Taliban members studied in the past, suggested Karzai asked him in talks Saturday to urge the Taliban to pursue peace negotiations.

Karzai is well aware of our contacts with the Taliban, he told Reuters.

An Afghan official confirmed the meeting took place.

The Afghan position these days is to have good relations and take on board all the parties and political sides of Pakistan and not just the government, he said.

Sami-ul-Haq comes across as one of the main parties.

(Additional reporting by Serena Chaudhry in Islamabad; and Jibran Ahmad in Peshawar, Editing by Robert Birsel)