US urges Pakistani return to democracy

The Bush administration said Saturday it was deeply disturbed by the state of emergency in Pakistan and urged a swift return to a democratic and civilian government. The Pentagon said Gen. Pervez Musharraf's declaration does not affect U.S. military support of Pakistan, however.

The stakes are high and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is closely monitoring the fast-developing situation, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said.

" Pakistan is a very important ally in the war on terror," Morrell told reporters aboard Gates' plane as he traveled to China.

The emergency declaration "does not impact our military support of Pakistan" or its efforts in the war on terror, Morrell said of the country that's a key U.S. partner in the fight against al-Qaida militants.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is taking the U.S. lead in dealing with the situation, Morrell said, and Gates had not spoken to Musharraf and had no plans to during his 17-hour flight to Beijing.

Rice said that, to her knowledge, Bush administration officials had yet to hear from Musharraf since his declaration Saturday, which suspended the constitution ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on his future as president. He also replaced the chief justice. U.S. leaders had privately and publicly urged him not to take such steps.

"The U.S. has made clear it does not support extraconstitutional measures because those measures take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule," Rice said after attending an Iraq neighbors conference in Istanbul. "Whatever happens we will be urging a quick return to civilian rule."

Adm. William J. Fallon, head of U.S. Central Command, met with Musharraf and other top generals on Friday to discuss the security situation in northwest Pakistan. But Fallon did not threaten to cut off U.S. military aid to the Pakistani government, Morrell said. And he said he has "no sense at this point that there is an imminent review" planned to look at whether aid should be affected.

The U.S. has been a leading supplier of military aid to Pakistan since it suspended sanctions on that country in recognition of its support for the war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. President Bush announced in 2002 that the U.S. would provide Pakistan with $3 billion in military and economic assistance over five years - aid that began flowing in 2005, according to the State Department.

Just last month, Pakistani officials said the U.S. had given them 30 helicopters to help fight Islamic militants along the border with Afghanistan. Washington had placed sanctions on military assistance to Pakistan in 1990 after the discovery of its program to develop nuclear weapons.

In Washington, a White House spokesman said, "All parties involved should move along the democratic path peacefully and quickly." Britain's foreign secretary said Pakistan's future "rests on harnessing the power of democracy and the rule of law to achieve the goals of stability, development and countering terrorism."

Musharraf's government blocked transmission of private news channels in several Pakistani cities, and telephone services in the capital were cut, in concert with his declaration.

The U.S.-backed Army chief had come close in August to declaring a state of emergency, but decided against it after strong opposition from inside and outside his government, including a late-night phone call from Rice in Washington.

Rice said she last spoke with Musharraf a couple of days ago but other U.S. officials had made the U.S. position clear to him more recently.

She would not detail the conversations. She did say the U.S. told Pakistani leaders that "even if something happens, that we would expect the democratic election to take place because Pakistan has got to return to a constitutional order as soon as possible, and Pakistanis have to have a prospect of free and fair elections."

It was not clear whether U.S. officials had advance knowledge of Saturday's action.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. was "deeply disturbed" by the developments.

"A state of emergency would be a sharp setback for Pakistani democracy and takes Pakistan off the path toward civilian rule," McCormack said in a statement.

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, claimed a sweeping victory in voting Oct. 6. He has pledged to quit the army before starting a new five-year term, but declined on election night to say whether he would accept a negative verdict from the court.

"President Musharraf has stated repeatedly that he will step down as chief of army staff before retaking the presidential oath of office and has promised to hold elections by January 15th," McCormack said, referring to parliamentary voting. "We expect him to uphold these commitments and urge him to do so immediately."

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Musharraf's move was "very disappointing."

"President Musharraf needs to stand by his pledges to have free and fair elections in January" and step down as army chief before taking the oath of office as president, Johndroe said.

The strong-armed maneuvers by Musharraf appeared to be a clear blow to the Bush administration. It aggressively has tried to stem any move toward authoritarianism in Pakistan.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., said Saturday, "President Bush should personally make clear to General Musharraf the risks to U.S.-Pakistani relations."

Biden, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, added, "We have to build a new relationship with the Pakistani people, with more nonmilitary aid, ... so that the moderate majority in Pakistan has a chance to succeed." ( AP )

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