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Sat Mar 15, 8:41 AM ET

US tones down praise for Musharraf


By FOSTER KLUG, Associated Press Writer

Just months ago, the United States publicly championed Pakistani President Pervez
Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally.
Now, officials barely mention the man the Bush administration once promoted as
essential to holding together a nuclear-armed country deemed crucial to the U.S.-led
fight against extremists in South Asia.
The new tone comes as the United States works to gain the favor of Pakistani
opposition forces that won big in last month's parliamentary elections and as
Musharraf's grip on power weakens. The newly empowered politicians are promising
to reinstate fired judges who had questioned the legality of Musharraf's continuing in
office.
The United States says it still intends to work with the former army chief, whom
Pakistani lawmakers elected to a five-year presidential term in October. But the Bush
administration appears to be shifting from making support for Musharraf the core of
its Pakistan policy, which many U.S. lawmakers and Pakistani opposition leaders have
long wanted.
Robert Hathaway, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia program, said Bush
officials will not abandon Musharraf, "but clearly they have to, in rather dramatic
fashion, alter what had been their previous practice of putting all of the American
eggs in a Musharraf basket."
Pakistan's "new realities," Hathaway said, "dictate that they deal with Islamabad on a
much broader basis if they wish to have any sort of influence in Pakistan."
In Feb. 18 parliamentary elections, the parties of slain opposition leader Benazir
Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, finished first and second.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, a party loyal to Musharraf, lost heavily.
The turnaround for Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, followed months of
angry criticism at his crackdown late last year on the opposition, judiciary and media.
In November, he declared a state of emergency and purged the Supreme Court
before it could rule on the disputed legality of his presidential re-election.
Richard Boucher, assistant secretary of state for South Asia, said this week that the
United States was reaching out to the opposition. "We have talked to all the parties,
telling them all, `We will work with whoever emerges as the leadership,'" he said.
The U.S. does not seem as eager to promote Musharraf as it once was.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told lawmakers late last month that
"Pakistan has been indispensable" to the fight against extremists, a marked change
from his comments in November that Musharraf himself was the indispensable key to
the effort.
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This week, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack avoided taking a position
on the possible restoration of the judges.
Asked if the United States was reaching out to politicians to express opposition to
bringing back the judges, McCormack said, "No."
"We're not in the business of interpreting their laws or their constitution for them," he
told reporters. "We don't have a vote in this, nor should we."
The United States does, however, have a stake in Pakistan's success as a moderate
Islamic state. Washington has pumped about $10 billion in aid into Pakistan since
Musharraf sided with the United States in the drive to topple the Taliban in
neighboring Afghanistan and hunt down terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist
attacks.
Farhana Ali, an analyst at the Rand Corp. think tank, said there is a "hesitancy within
the administration to completely let go of Musharraf."
She added that the Bush administration acknowledges "that we need Pakistan's
support. Therefore, it's wise for us to accept whoever is going to take the throne."