Exclusive: U.S. urges Pakistanis to keep Musharraf, despite election defeat

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 20, 2008 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan _The Bush administration is pressing the opposition leaders who defeated Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to allow the former general to retain his position, a move that Western diplomats and U.S. officials say could trigger the very turmoil the United States seeks to avoid.

U.S. officials, from President Bush on down, said this week that they think Musharraf, a longtime U.S. ally, should continue to play a role, despite his party's rout in parliamentary elections Monday and his unpopularity in the volatile, nuclear-armed nation.

The U.S. is urging the Pakistani political leaders who won the elections to form a new government quickly and not press to reinstate the judges whom Musharraf ousted last year, Western diplomats and U.S. officials said Wednesday. If reinstated, the jurists likely would try to remove Musharraf from office.

Bush's policy of hanging on to Musharraf has caused friction between the White House and the State Department, with some career diplomats and other specialists arguing that the administration is trying to buck the political tides in Pakistan, U.S. officials said.

Officials in the White House and the intelligence community fear that the longer Pakistan remains without a new government, the deeper the gridlock, threatening the progress made in the elections toward greater stability and helping the country's Islamic extremists.

One Western diplomat said, however, that the strategy could backfire if Pakistanis feel betrayed after voting to kick Musharraf from office.

"This is dangerous," said the diplomat.

The officials spoke to McClatchy on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss internal government debates.

The effort to persuade Pakistan's newly elected parliament not to reinstate the judges could be perceived in Pakistan as a U.S. attempt to keep Musharraf in power after voters overwhelmingly rejected his Pakistan Muslim League-Q political party.

"There is going to be an uprising against the people who were elected" should opposition parties agree to the plan, warned Athar Minallah, the lawyer of ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whom Musharraf has under house arrest.

A close aide to Nawaz Sharif, whose Pakistan Muslim League-N party won the second highest number of seats in the 342-seat National Assembly, said the former prime minister is under growing Western pressure to drop his demands for Musharraf's immediate resignation and the reinstatement of Chaudhry.

"The suggestion has been there from Western countries for some time," said the aide, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We are not willing to compromise on our stance. It would be against the interests of the Pakistani people."

There may also be personal reasons for Sharif's demands: He was ousted as prime minister when Musharraf led a 1999 coup against him.

The Bush administration has long praised Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally against al Qaida and Islamic radicals waging a guerrilla war and suicide bombing campaign from the tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

Bush, traveling in Africa, on Wednesday expressed appreciation for Musharraf.

"It's now time for the newly elected folks to show up and form their government, and the question then is, will they be friends of the United States, and I certainly hope so," he said at a news conference in Ghana.

But many Pakistanis consider Musharraf a U.S. puppet for stepping up counter-insurgency operations in the tribal areas that have claimed the lives of women and children.

Experts cite that cooperation as a key reason for the devastating losses suffered by Musharraf's political allies, who retained only 38 of 132 National Assembly seats.

The party backed Musharraf's ouster of Chief Justice Chaudhry, the arrests of thousands of critics, the muzzling of the independent press and a state of emergency last year.

Sharif's calls for Musharraf's ouster and the reinstatement of the judges are shaping up as the main hurdles to the formation of a coalition government between his party and the Pakistan Peoples Party of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. That party won the largest share — but not a majority — of National Assembly seats.

Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who assumed the party leadership after his wife's death in a Dec. 27 suicide bombing, is noncommittal on Musharraf's resignation, and said the reinstatement of the judges should be left to the new assembly to decide.

Zardari and Sharif were scheduled to hold talks on forging a coalition in Islamabad on Thursday, a day after Zardari met U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson and a U.S. diplomat in Lahore held talks with Sharif's brother, Shabaz.

The parties shouldn't become fixated on the confrontation between Musharraf and the judges, said one Western diplomat.

"It's not a good idea to have some kind of upset that could lead to new instability," said the second diplomat.

Zardari appears to be receptive to the plan. He said Tuesday that the new government should proceed with "softer, small steps."

His aides also indicated that the party could explore a coalition without Sharif if he refused to embrace the U.S. plan, saying it might be possible to forge one by bringing in moderate members of the pro-Musharraf party, independents and regional parties.

"There are moderate elements within the Q League. All options are open at this point," said Javaid R. Laghari, a senior PPP senator.

(Strobel reported from Washington.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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