Gingerly, U.S. reaches out to Sharif in Pakistan
With elections there postponed until Feb. 18, and turmoil unabated, the Bush administration evaluates its options for spurring its war-on-terror ally toward greater democracy.
With Pakistan's elections postponed and turmoil there continuing, the United States is reviewing its options – including a warming toward former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the top opposition leader in the absence of the slain Benazir Bhutto.Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Bhutto, not Mr. Sharif, had been the Bush administration's preferred candidate for nudging Pakistan, a key war-on-terror ally, toward democratization. Bhutto was thought to be open to a power-sharing arrangement with President Pervez Musharraf, while Sharif was not.
But recognizing that President Musharraf is weakened and increasingly isolated, the US is taking the pragmatic step of cautiously reaching out to other possible winners in Pakistan's political strife.
The US action "recognizes that, very likely if there is going to be a viable and acceptable leader of the opposition in the near future, it's going to be Nawaz Sharif," says Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence.
Sharif, a conservative Islamic politician never accused of pro-Americanism in a country sensitive to that charge, is a close ally of Saudi Arabia – his country of exile until his return to Pakistan in November.
If Sharif were to rise in Pakistan, it could advance Saudi Arabia's goal of becoming a weightier force in regional and Muslim–world affairs – a scenario the US would not be disposed to fight. A key reason is the Bush administration's interest in containing the Saudi rival, Iran – which is a Pakistan neighbor.
Saudi Arabia "has right along had considerable influence in Pakistan," says Mr. Weinbaum, now a scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "Some people [in Washington] are uneasy at the thought of Sharif in a position of power that would mean that Saudi influence would be extended, but let's not forget the Saudis are still our allies."
Sharif "may have very good relations with the [Saudi] royal family," he says, but "one thing for sure, he wouldn't be taking his orders from Iran."
The US has stepped up contacts with Sharif and his camp since Bhutto's assassination last Thursday, helping to persuade Sharif to call off his boycott of parliamentary elections originally set for Jan. 8. But those contacts may have been complicated by the Musharraf government's decision to postpone elections until Feb. 18.
The US had argued for elections to be held as scheduled, but had also left room for a short delay for organizational reasons. But the opposition, including Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, had said no delay was justified and would only be the government's transparent attempt to put off the victory of an opposition galvanized by Bhutto's assassination.
Sharif's party responded Wednesday to the six-week election postponement by renewing its call for Musharraf's resignation and for the creation of a "neutral caretaker government." Spokesmen also said the party would work with other opposition forces, including Bhutto's People's Party, to forge a united response from the opposition over the coming days.