U.S. quietly pushing for alliance in Pakistan

August 16, 2007|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration, struggling to find a way to keep Gen. Pervez Musharraf in power amid a deepening political crisis, is quietly prodding the Pakistani president to share authority with a longtime rival as a way of broadening his base, according to American and Pakistani officials.

Musharraf, a key U.S. ally since the Sept. 11 attacks, has lost so much domestic support in recent months that the American officials have gotten behind the idea that an alliance with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto would be his best chance of remaining president.

The two met in an unannounced session in Abu Dhabi on July 27, but neither has publicly acknowledged the meeting. Since then, many in Pakistan have heard the rumors and expressed their doubts about the workability and the political wisdom of such an alliance, and U.S. officials concede that the proposed power-sharing deal comes with problems as well as potential benefits.

But after weeks of unrest in Pakistan, the U.S. officials say that a power-sharing agreement that could install Bhutto as prime minister could help defuse a confrontation in which Musharraf has already flirted with invoking emergency powers.

Bush administration officials have said they fear that Musharraf could eventually be toppled and replaced by a leader who might be less reliable as a guardian of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal and as an ally in the campaign against terrorism.

Even if Musharraf were to insist on remaining as the country's military leader, U.S. officials say that sharing power could bring a more democratic spirit to Pakistan, which has been a quasi-military dictatorship since 1999, when Musharraf seized power and ousted Bhutto's successor, Nawaz Sharif.

Bhutto has been holding talks in recent weeks with senior Bush administration officials, including Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, with whom she met privately in New York late last week. Administration officials have taken pains not to publicly endorse a power-sharing agreement, so as not to seem as if the United States is trying to influence internal Pakistani politics.

But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did discuss with Musharraf the idea of a power-sharing arrangement when she called him last week at 2 a.m. in Pakistan to warn him not to declare emergency powers, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

Bhutto and Musharraf have a tortured personal history going back many years. Musharraf was her chief of military operations when she was prime minister, yet he has said repeatedly that she would not be allowed to return to Pakistan before the coming elections.

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