ISLAMABAD Senior U.S. officials offered broad support to an embattled President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday, while exhorting him to ensure that elections due this year in Pakistan were free and fair.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte met Musharraf, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Pakistan's top military brass against the backdrop of a brewing political crisis over the president's move to sack the country's top judge.
Negroponte said he had been encouraged by senior Pakistani officials to come to Islamabad and he noted the importance of the long-term, strategic relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan, a key ally in the fight against al Qaeda and a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
He was accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher. Admiral William J. Fallon, chief of the U.S. Central Command, met General Musharraf later on Saturday.
Analysts believe Musharraf's attempt to oust Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was motivated by fear that the judge would allow constitutional challenges if he sought a re-election, while still army chief, from the current national and provincial assemblies before their dissolution for elections due by the turn of the year.
Under the constitution, Musharraf, who came to power in a coup almost eight years ago, should quit as army chief by the end of 2007, but many Pakistanis doubt his intentions.
U.S. officials this week have said they expect Musharraf to honor his commitments, but Negroponte struck a permissive stance on the issue of the uniform.
"I think that is something that President Musharraf will himself want to decide," Negroponte told a news conference in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad.
"I am sure that he is going to make that decision based on considerations that he considers to be relevant with respect to the situation as he sees it."
SYMBOL OF RESISTANCE
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack endorsed Musharraf's leadership qualities, at a time when the general is facing the most serious challenge to his authority since taking power in a coup eight years ago.
"We believe that President Musharraf is an agent for positive change, not only in the region, but for Pakistan," McCormack said during a regular briefing on Friday.
Boucher told Pakistani television on Friday that the prevalent viewpoint in the U.S. government was that it "is time for Pakistan to move back to democratic elections and civilian rule".
Boucher, who has responsibility for South and Central Asia, emphasized the need for an election people could trust, rather than how soon Musharraf became a civilian president.
Widespread allegations of rigging accompanied the last elections in 2002.
The emergence of Chief Justice Chaudhry as a symbol of resistance has emboldened the opposition in the run up to the polls.
The judge is fighting in the Supreme Court for his reinstatement and the judiciary, the independent media, and opposition parties have rallied to his cause.
On Saturday, Chaudhry set off by road for the industrial city of Faisalabad in central Punjab province, where more huge crowds were expected to greet him, as they have done on previous trips around the country to meet lawyers and judges.