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.
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Meanwhile, Musharraf addressed the nation Wednesday evening for the first time since Bhutto's assassination, pinning her death on "terrorists." He also announced that Pakistan would accept assistance from Britain's Scotland Yard in the investigation of Bhutto's assassination, which occurred in the midst of a bombing and gunfire as she campaigned in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of Pakistan's powerful military. With demands mounting for outside help in investigating the circumstances of Bhutto's death, Scotland Yard was seen as a less controversial alternative to assistance from America's FBI.Skip to next paragraph
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After Musharraf's speech, Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, repeated a demand – already rejected by the government – for a United Nations probe like the one of the 2005 killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
In his speech, Musharraf endorsed postponement of the elections and called for all political forces to work together to make them a success. "This is a time for reconciliation and not for confrontation," he said.
Despite Sharif's call for opposition parties to unite around a goal of removing Musharraf from power, most observers say this will be difficult as opposition parties scramble to improve their own prospects.
"Public pressure may well be for opposition unity, but the prospects are complicated by Zardari's assuming control of the People's Party," says Selig Harrison, Asia Program director at the Center for International Policy in Washington. Other People's Party leaders, including some under house arrest, would be more open to such a common cause, says Mr. Harrison, but a lack of foreign pressure on Musharraf to free those leaders led to Mr. Zardari's rise and a more divisive stance based on ethnic and regional divides.
What Sharif is really doing by calling for opposition unity, though he knows it probably won't be forthcoming, is "positioning himself as the new opposition leader," Harrison adds.
The US should take up Sharif's idea of a neutral caretaker government, not as a means of support for Sharif but as a way to better ensure that the February elections are not rigged in Musharraf's favor, he says.
US influence in Pakistan has waned, many experts say, as the Bush administration has shown unwavering support for Musharraf and showered his regime with billions of dollars in aid to fight Islamist extremists.
But "our influence could still be considerable in bringing about an interim caretaker government," Harrison says, "if we are prepared to use our leverage." The US should also pressure Musharraf to release key opposition leaders under house arrest, including Aitzaz Ahsan, leader of the opposition lawyers' movement and a potentially strong leader in the February elections of the People's Party, he says.
That means threatening a cutoff of military assistance if such a step were not taken – something experts say the Pakistani military would be loath to see. Short of such a forceful step, Harrison says, US influence will keep declining – while Saudi influence grows.