- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The U.S. strongly criticized Pakistan’s government yesterday, saying it was “extremely disturbed” by a roundup of opposition leaders ahead of key court rulings on the re-election bid by President Pervez Musharraf.

It was an unusual scolding from the country that has counted Gen. Musharraf as a key ally against al Qaeda since the September 11, 2001, attacks, but his administration brushed off the comments, saying the crackdown is needed to prevent the opposition from fomenting trouble and trying to intimidate the Supreme Court.

“As a very close ally of Pakistan with a keen eye on Pakistan affairs, I am sure the U.S. does realize that in any democratic society, there can only be a rule of law and not a rule by the mob,” government spokesman Tariq Azim said.

Opposition leaders have warned of street protests if Gen. Musharraf presses ahead with his effort to be elected by lawmakers to a new five-year term next month. They also are challenging his plan before the Supreme Court, which rejected three petitions yesterday but is considering others.

Police arrested some opposition leaders over the weekend and more yesterday as others went into hiding. The opposition said more than 200 political figures had been detained, while Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said about 40 were in custody as of Sunday.

The U.S. government, which has given billions of dollars to Pakistan for its help against terrorist groups, had been reluctant to voice open criticism of Gen. Musharraf as he has struggled with worsening unpopularity this year.

But yesterday, the U.S. Embassy said the arrests of opposition leaders were “extremely disturbing and confusing for the friends of Pakistan” and called for those detained to be freed quickly.

A statement from the embassy said it did not endorse any candidate or party as Pakistan prepares for the presidential ballot Oct. 6 by federal and provincial legislators and for parliamentary elections by January.

“We hope to see a democratic process that is inclusive and the election of a leader who represents the choice of the Pakistani people through a free, fair and transparent process,” the embassy said.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey also was critical. He said the U.S. was concerned “any time there are steps taken that would inhibit people’s ability to participate in the political process or freedom of expression.”

Kamran Bokhari, South Asia analyst for the Washington-based Strategic Forecasting Inc., said the Bush administration is wary of being seen to prop up a repressive military ruler when its own troops are in tough fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said the U.S. government’s message is: “We’re watching, don’t make a mess of the situation. We’re not about to abandon you, but a lot depends on how you handle things.”

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