U.S. Wants Moderate Rule in Pakistan

The Associated Press
Thursday, August 16, 2007; 4:51 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- The United States wants to see Pakistan's moderate and democratic politicians unite to fight Islamic extremism, but has no interest in picking sides ahead of upcoming elections, a top U.S. envoy said Thursday.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, speaking at a news conference during a visit to the Pakistani capital, would not comment on the possibility of a power-sharing deal between President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. He spoke a day after holding talks with Musharraf and other top officials.

Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism, has suffered dwindling support this year and is at his weakest politically since seizing power in a 1999 coup as he seeks another five-year presidential term.

Musharraf met Bhutto, whose party is one of the country's largest opposition groups, for secret talks in the United Arab Emirates last month. Both leaders have refused to publicly acknowledge the direct talks, which were widely reported to be negotiations on a power-sharing deal.

The talks came amid rising U.S. pressure on Musharraf to do more to fight militants in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, where Washington believes al-Qaida and Taliban are regrouping. Musharraf also faces growing calls to quit his army post and restore full democracy.

Analysts say Washington would welcome a deal between Musharraf and Bhutto because it would keep Musharraf in a position of power while also bringing a moderate, secular leader into a more democratic government.

Boucher, on a two-day visit, held a series of meetings Wednesday with Musharraf and other government officials as well as opposition representatives. He told reporters Thursday that he had urged the major political parties to "strengthen the moderate center of Pakistan politics."

"The more that those tendencies can be brought forward and joined, the more solid base there is to deal with the serious problem of extremism," he said.

In Washington, the State Department said the United States was working with all parties to encourage the participation of moderate Pakistanis in politics.

"We have talked to all parties but any decisions about political deals, political arrangements within the Pakistani political system are going to be made by Pakistanis and the individuals involved," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.

"We do believe it is in the interest of continuing the kinds of political reforms that you have seen Gen. Musharraf implement, he added. "It goes without saying that we support free and fair elections in Pakistan."

Officials said U.S. diplomats had been in contact with Bhutto as part of the effort but would not say who else, apart from Musharraf himself, was being approached.

Pakistan has deployed some 90,000 troops to its border regions with Afghanistan, where there has been a surge in attacks in recent weeks. U.S. officials have been pressing Pakistan to do more to stop militants from orchestrating attacks against U.S.-led international coalition forces in Afghanistan from its territory.

On Thursday, suspected militants ambushed a military convoy in northwestern Pakistan, triggering a shootout that killed at least 10 insurgents and two soldiers, an army spokesman said.

Elsewhere in the region, two separate bombings killed a pair of soldiers and a pro-government elder and his driver, officials said.

Talat Masood, a political analyst and retired army general, said a power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto would be seen as "ideal" in Washington.

Musharraf is seeking the alliance with Bhutto to gain the political clout of her Pakistan People's Party, a moderate and secular group that is among the country's strongest political forces, Masood said. For Bhutto, an alliance with Musharraf could bring an end to the corruption charges that have kept her in exile and could see her return to high office in Pakistan.

The danger for both is that Pakistanis will see any deal as a cynical ploy.

"It would be seen as coming to a deal not because there is a convergence of policies," said Masood. "The leaders would both be seen as compromising for their own interest, not for the interest of the country."

© 2007 The Associated Press