Bush backs Musharraf as Pakistani leader's support wanes

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Bush reached out Friday to support longtime ally Pervez Musharraf, calling the embattled Pakistani president to assure him of continued U.S. backing.

Musharraf's demise is now considered almost a foregone conclusion in Pakistan, but Bush's intervention appeared to be a powerful signal that Washington wouldn't welcome Musharraf's exit.

"The president reiterated the United States' strong support for Pakistan, and he indicated he looked forward to President Musharraf's continuing role in further strengthening U.S.-Pakistani relations," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in Washington.

Pakistan is abuzz with speculation that Musharraf's attempts to cling to power have collapsed as his enemies step up their attacks and even his supposed allies have gone silent. The rumors reached fever pitch in the last few days with stories of a rift between the president and army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, forcing Musharraf to deny any differences with the military.

"This (Bush call) is a shoring up, an effort to demonstrate continued support," said Dan Markey, a former State Department official who's now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, a nonpartisan research center. "I have heard no serious rumblings of a change from the Bush administration on Musharraf. My impression is that they feel that there is not a lot to gain from losing this ally now, as they would get no credit for it."

Pakistan's fragile coalition government, which came to power after elections in February, has taken an increasingly hard line against Musharraf, who rose to power in a 1999 military coup.

Under Pakistan's original constitution, power is supposed to rest with the prime minister and his government, with the president merely a ceremonial head of state. Musharraf has balked at the government's attempts to cut the powers he's awarded himself, especially the ability to dismiss parliament and appoint the army chief.

"The mandate (from the elections) was surely for getting rid of Musharraf. The American are trying to overturn the mandate of the people," said Hameed Gul, a retired general who formerly headed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency. "But I don't know if even Bush can save Pervez Musharraf from his current crisis."

Musharraf has been a crucial partner for the U.S. in the anti-terrorism fight since Sept. 11, reversing Pakistan's previous policy of supporting the Taliban. Pakistan's instability under the new government — with intense political infighting in Islamabad and a failure to grapple with the country's severe economic crunch — has alarmed Washington.

The new administration also is negotiating peace deals with Pakistani militants along its border with Afghanistan. Such agreements in the past have led to increased attacks against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Western diplomats in Islamabad suggested that Bush's message was subtler than straightforward support. It was a plea for harmony, they said, for Musharraf to find a way to work with the politicians. Musharraf has become embroiled in party politics, in an apparent attempt to divide the coalition and create the impression that the government is leading Pakistan into disaster.

"It is not a case of support for Musharraf against the new government, it is more like, 'Why don't you guys work together for the good of the country,' and get onto the really important terrorism and economic issues," said one Western diplomat, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

It's widely thought that Musharraf thinks that the coalition can't hold together and that that would allow him to remain in power. He's been proved partly right, with the two main parties in the government — the Pakistan People's Party and the party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — at odds over what to do about Musharraf and over the reinstatement of judges whom he fired last November.

The People's Party, led by Asif Zardari, has sought an accommodation with the president, but even there relations between the parties are strained. Sharif, whom Musharraf deposed as prime minister, is out for revenge.

"Musharraf is clutching at straws. Any sensible man in his place would call it a day," said Ikram Sehgal, a security analyst based in Karachi. "He believes that he can get out of any crisis."

Under pressure from Washington and Pakistani opposition parties, Musharraf in November relinquished his position as army chief, which was the main source of his power. His successor, Kayani, has sought to depoliticize the army.

Musharraf's political allies were trounced in February's elections. A popular movement of Pakistan's lawyers, who've campaigned for the restoration of the country's independent judiciary, are out to topple the president.

This week, Sharif demanded in a fiery speech that Musharraf be tried for treason. In a showdown between the president and the government, it remains unclear which side Pakistan's army would back.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)