Bush speaks to Musharraf, urges elections

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Wednesday he had urged Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to hold elections and quit as army chief in a “frank discussion” with an ally fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban.

It was the first time Bush has spoken directly to Musharraf since the leader of nuclear-armed Pakistan declared a state of emergency on Saturday.

Bush’s intervention came as former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto threatened to lead a mass protest to the capital unless Musharraf gives up his military post, holds elections and restores the constitution.

Bhutto, leader of the largest opposition party and the politician most capable of mobilizing street power, gave Musharraf until Friday to comply.

The United States had hoped Bhutto would share power with Musharraf after elections due in January, but Musharraf’s calling of the emergency brought disarray to U.S. policy.

“My message was that we believe strongly in elections and that you ought to have elections soon and you need to take off your uniform. You can’t be the president and the head of the military at the same time,” Bush told a news conference.

“I had a very frank discussion with him,” Bush said.

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Pakistan government officials have said January elections will be held on time. A member of Musharraf’s inner circle said emergency rule was likely to be lifted within 2 or 3 weeks.

But Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup and imposed emergency rule last Saturday citing a hostile judiciary and rising militancy, has not yet personally confirmed this.

Washington has said it will review aid to Pakistan which has totaled nearly $10 billion since the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

A senior Pentagon general said the U.S. military was worried about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons after the imposition of emergency rule.

“Any time there is a nation that has nuclear weapons that has experienced a situation such as Pakistan is at present, that is a primary concern,” Lt. Gen. Carter Ham, director of operations for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters.

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Bhutto made her political demands clear at an Islamabad news conference after meeting members of her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and smaller opposition parties.

“We can’t work for dictatorship. We can work for democracy,” she said. “General Musharraf can open the door for negotiations only if he revives the constitution, retires as chief of army staff and sticks to the schedule of holding elections.”

She said her supporters would begin their protest on November 13 from the eastern city of Lahore, the nation’s political nerve-centre, and travel to Islamabad to stage a sit-in.

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“The ball is now in government’s court,” she said.

Bhutto returned to Pakistan with Musharraf’s blessing on October 18 after almost eight years of self-imposed exile.

Hundreds of thousands of supporters welcomed her, but the cheerful homecoming was short-lived. A suicide bomb attack next to her motorcade killed at least 139 people.

Police have arrested hundreds of lawyers and opposition figures and supporters since Saturday.

Musharraf’s main reason for imposing emergency rule and suspending the constitution appears to have been the removal of judges who appeared hostile to the government, analysts say. Ousted chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is being held incommunicado at his residence in Islamabad.

The Supreme Court had been hearing challenges to the legality of Musharraf’s October 6 re-election by parliament while still army chief. Fears the decision could have gone against the general were believed to have been the main motive for his move.

The United States and Britain were joined by the 27-nation European Union in urging Musharraf to release all political detainees, including members of the judiciary, relax media curbs, and seek reconciliation with political opponents.

Reporting by Kamran Haider, Simon Gardner and Zeeshan Haider and Augustine Anthony in ISLAMABAD, Sahar Ahmed in KARACHI, and Kristin Roberts in Washington