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.
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.
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.
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.