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Pakistan: Latest News and Media Reaction

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Shamin-ur-Rahman
Correspondent, Dawn News, Pakistan
Tuesday, November 13, 2007; 11:00 AM

Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in harsh comments issued by phone while under house arrest, on Tuesday demanded that President Pervez Musharraf step down and appeared to scotch any lingering chance of a powersharing arrangement between them.

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Shamin-ur-Rahman, reporter for Dawn News in Karachi ( watch live), was online from Pakistan Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the volatile situation amid a growing number of arrests of her party members, how the crackdown has affected Pakistani media and journalists and Musharraf's ambiguity about how long the emergency rules may last.

The transcript follows.

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New York, N.Y.: What are the reactions in the Indian government and the Indian people regarding this turmoil in Pakistan?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: The Indian people are very cautious and concerned about what is happening in Pakistan because we are their neighbors and whatever developments take place in Pakistan are definitely going to affect the situation in the region. If there is instability at all and turmoil in Pakistan the Indians should be naturally concerned. I think it will be advisable that New Delhi should be very watchful and should not rush with anything.

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Boston, Mass.: Who is the power behind Musharraf in the military and would they ever dump him overboard to put a new face on their dominance of Pakistan? What role has the Pakistan intelligence service played in recent weeks and how important is their support for Musharraf?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: I believe that Musharraf is there because of the support he enjoys within the military and especially the loyalties of intelligence agencies. He's there because he has very loyal corps commanders but due to the developments in the tribal areas, many troops were killed or they were taken hostage by the militants; therefore some difficulties might have cropped up for Musharraf within his own constituency. Recent developments of political turmoil in Pakistan should not be seen in isolation. Whatever Musharraf has done -- like clamping emergency and putting curbs on the media -- that shows his position has been weakened and there is a pressure from within his constituency to step down from the post as of the chief of the Army staff so that the military could be safe from open and direct criticism.

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Arlington, Va.: How difficult is it for you as a journalist to work under the emergency rules? Are you able to interview government officials?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: It's very difficult to operate now because of the current situation and the media ban and therefore it's hard to get to the truth. The government officials are not available to give the objective answers to the questions raised by the newsmen. In fact, the media is being harassed and many of the journalists have been questioned with dire consequences and their families have also been harassed. Many journalists have disappeared; they have been either killed or they have been forced to leave their area of operation along with their families. So this is the kind of state of affairs under Musharraf.

When we try to bring these things out into the public, he pursues us. He poses bans.

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Atlanta: I knew little about how Pakistan before the war in Afghanistan and in Iraq -- but I did know that the government and the region could become unstable with a few critical incidents. Do you think the United States should had focused on Pakistan first before waging war in Afghanistan and in Iraq?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: I think the U.S. can do a lot by focusing on the restoration of democracy in Pakistan as well as in Afghanistan. In the case of Pakistan, the U.S. should try to deal with the people of Pakistan rather than with a one- man military ruler. This kind of approach will be more sustainable in the war on terror.

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Anonymous: Who do the citizens of Pakistan support? Is it near a 33 percent breakdown between Musharraf, Bhutto and other more fundamentalist groups?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: It's difficult in a country like Pakistan. There's no scientific studies that have been done. No political polls. All these polls are misleading because because they're not carried out on a scientific basis. Musharraf is not as popular as many people thought him to be. Bhutto is gaining ground but she has difficulties. When she entered into dialogue with Musharraf that was not liked by many political parties in Pakistan because the general feeling here in Pakistan was against military rule and especially Musharraf, so anyone who is dealing with him is suspected but after Benazir's return, she has developed serious differences with Musharraf who has put Bhutto under house arrest twice in less than a week. First in Islamabad and now in Lahore where she had gone to lead a mass rally of her party to Islamabad.

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Atlanta: Has there been any response from the White House on these new developments? Do you really think that fair elections can be held under these conditions?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: There has been some response from Negroponte, Condoleezza Rice ...but they have not taken a position on how the elections will be held when the Constitution is suspended. I'm not saying that the U.S. should get that involved in the internal politics of Pakistan but since they have been working with Musharraf for such a long time, they [should] withdraw their support for him now. I think this will put things in order in Pakistan.

The U.S. should support independent and free elections. I'm not saying whom they should support. The people will decide who's to lead them.

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New York: Thank you for chatting today. What is the attitude of the Pakistani armed forces and police? Is there any concern among them that Musharraf may be taking things too far? If so, is there an independent group that could oppose Musharraf without penalty?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: It is very difficult in Pakistan for a serving military officer to express views against his leadership but if you take into account the views expressed by the Association of the Retired Army Officers you can appreciate the widespread concern about his policies. There's a general feeling that his policies have divided Pakistan more than uniting the people and those policies are hurting not only Pakistan but also the region's stability.

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Kansas City, Kan.: How does the instability in Pakistan affect the Bush administration's short- and long-range plans to contain Iran? Does the administration enjoy (historically) good relations with Bhutto?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: There is a perception that Bhutto has good relations with some individuals in the Bush administration. But in the future, what kind of administration will come up in the U.S. in light of the presidential elections? That will be more significant. Instead of building relationships with individuals the U.S. should build those relationships with the government here in Pakistan and that should be the elected government which enjoys the peoples' confidence.

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New York: Thanks for your reporting. What's your worst-case projection about what could conceivably happen next?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: If the situation goes on like this, if the Constitution remains suspended, the media remains scrutinized and bans remain on it and the judiciary is targeted then Pakistan is in a real danger. Because that will give more freedom to the extremists to gain ground in Pakistan. The extremists include religious groups, those who are not allowed to function according to the laws of civilized society. So many segments of society can be affected, they get alienated from society and this is not good. Anywhere in the world, not just in Pakistan, not good for any country.

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Charlotte, N.C.: Shamin: I am an Indian-American and have never felt so proud of Pakistan and its people in letting their voices be heard. Listening to Imran Khan and Benazir Bhutto on radio interviews, I think the people of Pakistan are ready to make the transition to a secular democracy.

Is Musharraf sensing any of the seismic shift or is he being closeted by advisors who are screening for him? Is it possible that he falsely senses Bush's kind words as complete immunity for his actions?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: You have answered your own question. I must tell you, Musharraf is a very self-centered man and he can go to any extent for self-preservation, whether it is in the form of making a U-turn on Afghanistan or another U-turn on something else. You can never be sure where he's going to turn around, he can change his loyalties.

You see, after Oct. 12, 1999, he staged a coup d'etat on that day and now after eight years he is again staging a coup against his own dispensation.

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Fairfax, Va.: Can Musharraf conduct free and fair elections in January with emergency rule in place?

Shamin-ur-Rahman: There can be no elections when martial law is in effect because the Constitution is suspended. There cannot be any free or fair elections in emergency conditions.

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Shamin-ur-Rahman: I can only say that we ask you to stand by the people of Pakistan in their struggle for democracy.

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