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US to Musharraf: Shed uniform before poll

world Updated: Jun 12, 2007 11:44 IST

The US says it backs embattled Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf in its national interest, but hoped that he would shed his uniform and hold free and fair elections.

"US assistance to Pakistan is done with - because it is in our national interest to do so," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on Monday declining to link aid with the current political turmoil in Islamabad or Musharraf' s reluctance to give up the army chief's job.

"A more stable, more democratic, more prosperous Pakistan is in our interest, it's in the interest of the Pakistani people, it's in the interest of the region," he said.

"But in providing that assistance, we are narrowing up our interest with our values. So this is not a case where a country is providing assistance and abandoning its values," he said noting, "We continue to work with the Musharraf government and others within the Pakistani political system to continue their process of political reforms."

Hoping the November elections in Pakistan "should be free, fair and transparent and should meet international standards", McCormack said, "Those are things, I think, that everybody can support."

"...He has pledged to make that choice ... if he continues in political life, to put aside the uniform. And we take him at his word at that and we would expect him to follow through on his commitments," he added.

But McCormack discounted speculation that Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher is going to Pakistan to mediate in its political crisis sparked by the suspension of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

"Look, the Pakistani people are more than capable enough of resolving any political differences they may have, striking any political bargains. They don't need our help to do so," he said.

Calling President Pervez Musharraf's decision to rescind his decree against the media as a "a positive step", he hoped that the case against Chaudhry "should be resolved within the confines of the Pakistani constitution and their legal norms and the media should be free to cover it as they see fit."

Asked about Washington's continued backing for Musharraf, McCormack said, "He has made some progress in terms of political and economic reforms...(but) as you open up, more of that brings with it heightened expectations for what might be done."

Meanwhile, the influential New York Times on Monday asked Washington "to disentangle America, quickly, from the general's damaging embrace" as "nobody takes General Musharraf's democratic claims seriously anymore, except for the Bush administration."

In an editorial titled, "Pakistan's Dictator", it said the administration had "put itself in the embarrassing position of propping up the Muslim world's most powerful military dictator as an essential ally in its half-baked campaign to promote democracy throughout the Muslim world."

"Ever since his high-handed dismissal of the country's independent-minded chief justice in March, the general has been busily digging himself into an ever deeper political hole," the Times said.

Pakistan seems to be rapidly approaching a critical turning point, with a choice between intensified repression and instability or an orderly transition back to democratic rule, it said.

Were Washington now to begin distancing itself from the general, it would greatly encourage civic-minded Pakistanis to step up the pressure for free national elections, the Times said.

"That's a process the chief justice was trying to make possible when he was fired. And that is what Pakistan's last two democratically elected leaders - Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - are both campaigning for from abroad", it noted.

"The United States should be supporting these efforts, not continuing to make excuses for General Musharraf," the influential daily advised.