A U.S. rethink on support to Musharraf?

Nirupama Subramanian

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher meets Kasuri amid speculation

Ongoing political crisis to figure in meeting with MusharrafBut Pakistan says visit is part of regular consultations

ISLAMABAD: United States Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher met Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri here on Wednesday amid speculation that the Bush Administration may be rethinking the terms of its support to President Pervez Musharraf.

As Mr. Boucher flew to the Pakistan capital, the U.S State Department said in Washington D.C. that the Bush Administration expects that President Musharraf will honour his pledge that "if he continues in political life, to put aside the uniform."

Spokesman Sean McCormack also said that the U.S. wanted the elections in Pakistan to be "free, fair and transparent" and "should meet international standards."

Most observers believe that when Mr. Boucher meets President Musharraf, possibly on Thursday, the ongoing political crisis, which is the Pakistan leader's worst in the seven years he has ruled the country, is most likely to figure in the discussions.

The Bush administration has thus far backed President Musharraf in return for his support on the "war on terror," and has stood by him despite criticism from several quarters including the U.S. media that he was not doing enough.

But it is bound to be worried that the Pakistan leader's grip over his country has weakened substantially since his March 9 action to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary backfired and triggered widespread protests.

Influential voices in the U.S, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are beginning to advise that Washington should "disentangle" from the "damaging embrace" of President Musharraf, and encourage other more "civic-minded" politicians.

Democratic and Republican members of Congress recently wrote to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice expressing concern about President Musharraf's handling of the crisis, and urged the administration to support the democratic process in the interest of both the U.S and Pakistan. But on Wednesday, the Pakistan Foreign Office made it clear that Mr. Boucher's meeting with Mr. Kasuri "focussed on Pakistan-U.S relations and on Afghanistan".

"Ties reviewed"

A statement from the Foreign Ministry said "various aspects of the bilateral relations were reviewed" and Mr. Boucher expressed U.S. commitment to a strong, broad-based relationship with Pakistan. Mr. Kasuri, who is scheduled to visit Washington next week, reiterated Pakistan's commitment to the "war on terror" and highlighted his government efforts to strengthen security along the border with Afghanistan.

The statement stressed that Mr. Boucher was a regular visitor to Pakistan, that this was his third visit this year, and that it was part of the regular consultations between the two countries.

Earlier this week, the Foreign Ministry squashed reports in the local media that the purpose of Mr. Boucher's visit was to mediate between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party so as to stitch up a "deal" between the two.

Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said the reports were "absolutely baseless". The State Department spokesman also dismissed the reports, saying the "Pakistani people are more than capable enough of resolving any political difference they may have, striking any political bargains; they don't need our help to do so."

In the Supreme Court, where Mr. Chaudhary has challenged President Muhsarraf's action against him, a government lawyer stunned the full court hearing the petition with a sudden accusation that the chief justice's lawyers were being funded by "foreign sources."

He said the defence lawyers were playing with the destiny of the country by denting the President's image.

Aitzaz Ahsan, lead counsel for Mr. Chaudhary, raised a strong objection, and asked the court for protection against "libellous" accusations. Following a stern ticking off by the judge heading the bench, the government lawyer was forced to withdraw his accusation unconditionally.

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