- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Senior U.S. officials offered broad support to an embattled President Pervez Musharraf yesterday while exhorting him to ensure that elections due this year in Pakistan were free and fair.

Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte met with Gen. Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Pakistan’s top military brass against the backdrop of a brewing political crisis over the president’s move to fire the country’s top judge.

Mr. Negroponte said he had been encouraged by senior Pakistani officials to come to Islamabad, and he noted the importance of the long-term, strategic relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda and a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

He was accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher. Adm. William J. Fallon, chief of the U.S. Central Command, met with Gen. Musharraf later yesterday.

Analysts say Gen. Musharraf’s attempt to oust Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was motivated by fear that the judge would allow constitutional challenges if he sought a re-election, while still army chief, from the current national and provincial assemblies before their dissolution for elections due by the turn of the year.

Under the constitution, Gen. Musharraf, who came to power in a coup almost eight years ago, should quit as army chief by the end of the year, but many Pakistanis doubt his intentions.

U.S. officials last week said they expect Gen. Musharraf to honor his commitments, but Mr. Negroponte struck a permissive stance on the issue of the uniform.

“I think that is something that President Musharraf will himself want to decide,” Mr. Negroponte told reporters in the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

“I am sure that he is going to make that decision based on considerations that he considers to be relevant with respect to the situation as he sees it.”

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack endorsed Gen. Musharraf’s leadership qualities, at a time when the general is facing the most serious challenge to his authority since taking power in a coup eight years ago.

“We believe that President Musharraf is an agent for positive change, not only in the region but for Pakistan,” Mr. McCormack said during a regular briefing Friday.

Mr. Boucher told Pakistani television Friday that the prevalent viewpoint in the U.S. government was that it “is time for Pakistan to move back to democratic elections and civilian rule.”

Mr. Boucher, who has responsibility for South and Central Asia, emphasized the need for an election people could trust, rather than how soon Gen. Musharraf became a civilian president.

Widespread accusations of rigging accompanied the previous elections in 2002.

The emergence of Chief Justice Chaudhry as a symbol of resistance has emboldened the opposition in the run-up to the vote. The judge is fighting in the Supreme Court for his reinstatement, and the judiciary, the independent press and opposition parties have rallied to his cause.



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