ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Bush administration has signaled that it will continue to tolerate Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's crackdown on his country's judiciary at least until after a Feb. 18 national election.
Calling Musharraf an indispensable ally, U.S. officials have largely declined to criticize his ouster of top judges and said that questions about restoring the courts' independence should be put on hold until after the election.
Pakistani analysts said that muzzling the courts might help the embattled and increasingly unpopular leader remain in power, and administration officials told Congress this week that nothing should be done to press Musharraf on the judiciary until after the election.
"They need to have an independent judiciary, but I can't see them doing it till after the election, with all the players, including the new players," said Assistant Secretary Richard Boucher, the State Department's point man on Pakistan.
Asked if he considered Musharraf indispensable to the United States, Boucher replied, "I do."
Musharraf has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaida in neighboring Afghanistan and on Pakistan's northwest frontier. Pakistan has arrested hundreds of Islamic extremists, but the unstable nuclear-armed nation is still facing a growing Islamic insurgency.
Musharraf has responded to growing Islamist and political opposition by cracking down on Pakistan's courts, press and opposition political parties.
He sacked more than 50 judges in November, among them the chief justice of the Supreme Court, whom he's kept under house arrest and accused of being "inept and corrupt."
Musharraf's repressive moves have undermined his legitimacy, with polls finding that the vast majority of his countrymen want him to step down.
Several U.S. lawmakers told Boucher this week that the rule of law is crucial to credible elections.
"I can't get beyond the fact that he (Musharraf) basically dissolved the judiciary and put them aside. And it seems that almost everything that follows from that point becomes a farce," said Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn.
The Democratic chair of the House of Representatives subcommittee on national security, Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts, said Musharraf has sacked 13 of the 17 Supreme Court judges and more than 40 other senior judges and replaced them with sympathetic ones.
"Stacking the full range of high courts . . . amounts to hijacking the electoral process itself," Tierney said.
The judicial crisis has galvanized many Pakistanis, including nearly 100,000 lawyers, most of whom support the restoration of Chaudhry.
On Thursday, more than 100 retired military officers, including dozens of retired generals, air marshals and admirals, reiterated their demand, first made on Jan. 22, that Musharraf resign and that ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry be restored to the high court.
The group said that any dispute that arises during the elections will likely end up before judges loyal to Musharraf.
"Whatever issue is referred to them, they'll adjudicate in favor of the president," said retired Col. Ghulam Sarwer Cheema, a former defense minister. "They are pliable. But the public will defy it. It could lead to a bigger crisis."
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, said in its annual report Thursday that Musharraf's decision to fire the judges undermined the possibility of free elections.
"But the United States and Britain, Islamabad's largest aid donors, have refused to condition assistance to the government on improving pre-electoral conditions," the report said.
Even if opposition parties win the Feb. 18 election convincingly, they might not be able to form a government with enough support in parliament to undo Musharraf's court-packing, analysts said Thursday.
"It will not be a very strong government. It will be a weak one," said Kamal Matinuddin, a retired general and political commentator. He added that the coalition would "have to have a two-thirds majority (in the parliament) to overturn these decisions."
Meanwhile, the vendetta between Musharraf and Chaudhry is intensifying. Aides who accompanied Musharraf on a trip to Europe gave journalists a seven-page dossier that charged that Chaudhry displayed "bizarre behavior" on the bench, demanded luxury cars with police escorts, humiliated underlings, denied a guest the use of a bathroom and submitted dubious medical claims.
Among those medical claims, the dossier said, were charges for "a gadget to test diabetes, contact lens solution, face masks, creams, toothpaste (and) acne lotions."
Chaudhry, for his part, smuggled a letter out of his house, which is under around-the-clock police guard, and issued it to the public through his supporters.
"We cannot even step out on to the lawn for the winter sun because that space is occupied by police pickets," Chaudhry wrote. "Barbed-wire barricades surround the residence, and all phone lines are cut. Even the water connection to my residence has been periodically turned off."
Referring disparagingly to Musharraf as "the general" and declaring him an "extremist," Chaudhry said the elections wouldn't be considered free and fair unless an independent court system was empowered to safeguard them.