Politics & Government

Pakistani leader says Obama must change course

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Embattled, U.S.-backed Pakistani Pres. Pervez Musharraf Saturday warned Barack Obama that if he wins the White House, he'd have to change his policies towards Pakistan.

Musharraf, whom President Bush considers one of America's closest allies in the war on terrorism, denied that Bush gives orders to Pakistan, a charge that's constantly levelled against both men.

The Pakistani president also used his first press conference in six months to reject speculation that he's about to be forced out of office, rumors that have grown so strong that Bush called him at the end of last month to pledge continued American support. Musharraf came out fighting, saying that he isn't willing to accept the newly elected Pakistani government's plan to reduce him to a ceremonial role.

"I can't become a useless vegetable," said Musharraf, looking relaxed and confident. "I am elected as president of Pakistan constitutionally. I cannot preside over the downfall of Pakistan."

Responding to a question about Obama, who's advocated shifting America's military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Musharraf said that the Democratic contender had based his statements on "incomplete information, which will always be wrong".

Although Taliban and al Qaida extremists have found refuge in Pakistan's tribal region bordering Afghanistan, U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan have kept off Pakistani soil. Unmanned U.S. aircraft, however, have fired missiles at targets in Pakistan, killing suspected militants but also some innocent civilians.

In an address in March, Obama broke with Bush's policy. "We cannot tolerate a sanctuary for terrorists who threaten America's homeland and Pakistan's stability," he said. "If we have actionable intelligence about high-level al Qaida targets in Pakistan's border region, we must act if Pakistan will not or cannot."

"If he (Obama) becomes president of the U.S., he will get more information on this region, and I think he'll have a more realistic approach," Musharraf said Saturday.

Musharraf defended his alliance with Bush, which is highly unpopular in Pakistan because of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, which are widely considered campaigns against Islam. Since 9/11, the U.S. has provided Pakistan with some $11 billion in aid, primarily to the military that Musharraf led until he retired from the army in November.

"Personal relations are very important in inter-state relations," said Musharraf. "I have a relationship with President Bush, in the interests of Pakistan. That doesn't mean that all our policies will be dictated by him."

Saturday's spirited performance could be the start of an attempted comeback by Musharraf, who saw his political allies routed in the February elections.

The new Pakistani government has proposed reversing the constitutional changes orchestrated by Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 military coup, which awarded sweeping powers to the president. Pakistan's original political system envisioned a powerful prime minister and a figurehead president.

Musharraf accused the new government of failing to tackle the country's twin economic and terrorism crises. He lauded the economic record of the previous government — which was made up of his supporters.

"We need to save this country, we are certainly going down," he said. "These problems will be solved when there is stability in the nation . . . we are delaying addressing it, and instead are adopting a confrontational attitude."

Mushahid Hussain, the secretary general of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the political party that's the president's biggest ally, said that Musharraf was "cashing in on the incompetence" of the government.

"Never forget, the president is a survivor. He is like a cat with nine lives. He still has one or two left," said Hussain.

Musharraf's bravado did nothing, however, to endear him to his foes.

"He has the cheek to say he served this nation, when in fact he ruined it," said Sadiq ul-Farooq, a spokesman for the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Next week will be a major test for the president. Lawyers, civil society activists and anti-Musharraf political parties are planning a "Long March" to the capital to protest his rule, in particular his dismissal of 60 judges in November.

Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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