WASHINGTON, Feb 20: President George W. Bush said on Wednesday he hopes the new government in Islamabad will continue an anti-terrorism alliance with the United States.
A transcript released by the White House in Washington quoted Mr Bush as interpreting the success of moderate forces in Monday’s election as “a significant victory” in the war on terror. He also noted that international observers have “judged” the elections as being fair.
“President Musharraf’s party has been routed in parliamentary elections there and it appears that he’s lost the support of his people. Do you see this as the beginning of the end for him? Do you still view him as a credible leader in the fight against terrorism?” asked a reporter.
But Mr Bush declined to discuss President Musharraf’s political fate and offered no comments on reports that opposition parties have stepped up calls for his resignation.
Instead, he praised Mr Musharraf as a man who kept the promises he made before the elections.
“I appreciate the fact that President Musharraf has done exactly that which he said he was going to do. He said he would hold elections, he said he would get rid of his emergency law,” Mr Bush said.
“And, so it is now time for the newly-elected folks to show up and form their government,” he said. “And, the question then is: will they be friends of the United States? I certainly hope so. We view Pakistan as an important ally.”
Speaking to journalists in Ghana, during a five-nation tour of Africa, Mr Bush said the United States and Pakistan share a common interest in bringing to justice those who killed former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
“We’ve got interests in helping making sure there is no safe haven from which people can plot and plan attacks against the United States of America and Pakistan,” he said. “So that’s my take on the elections.”
Asked how he saw the elections, Mr Bush said: “There was a victory for the people of Pakistan, and that is, there were elections held that have been judged as being fair. And the people have spoken. I view that as a significant victory.
“I view it as a part of the victory in the war on terror. After all, ideologues can’t stand -- like these guys we’re dealing with -- can’t stand free societies, that’s why they try to kill innocent people, that’s why they tried to intimidate people during the election process,” said the US president.
Meanwhile, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey hopes that the victors of Monday’s elections in Pakistan can elect a prime minister who will work with President Pervez Musharraf.
“Ultimately, President Musharraf is still the president of Pakistan,” State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey told reporters. “And certainly we would hope that whoever becomes prime minister and whoever winds up in charge of the new government would be able to work with him and with all other factions.”
Although Mr Casey did not say what political alliance the US would like to see emerge in Pakistan, others did say that Washington would be happy to work with the PPP because, like Mr Musharraf, this party also views the extremists as a threat to Pakistan’s stability.
“Former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s party, in particular, feels acutely the threat from violent extremists and terrorism, having had their party leader recently assassinated,” said Sean McCormack, State Department’s official spokesman.
Mr McCormack also said the US hopes that all “moderate forces within Pakistan’s political system” can band together but he did not say who the United States believes qualify to join this moderate alliance.
Other officials, interviewed by various US media outlets, however, said they hope that the Pakistan People’s Party can elect a prime minister who will form an alliance with Mr Musharraf’s supporters.
But diplomatic observers in Washington say this statement does not indicate that the United States is urging the PPP to form an alliance with the PML-Q.
“The Americans are not naming names,” said a senior diplomatic source. “They have two clear objectives: President Musharraf should continue as president and religious elements should be kept out of the new government.”
This leaves former prime minister and PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif, whose party won the second largest number of seats in parliament, in the lurch.
A prominent US newspaper -- Wall Street Journal -- noted that in Washington Mr Shairf is viewed as a leader with “ambiguous” views towards religious extremists.
Other media outlets pointed out that while commenting on Mr Sharif’s return to Pakistan in November; President Bush had underlined his “contacts with religious parties,” and said that this “makes his capability to fight the war on terror doubtful.”
Mr Bush also said that the “presence of such a leader in Pakistan, who is unaware of the requirements of today’s world and does not understand the importance of dealing with extremists nurturing a desire to attack other countries, will be a matter of grave concern for us.”
Referring to this statement, the US media noted that in the 1990s, as prime minister, Mr Sharif was closely allied with the forces that fostered the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and a religious insurgency in Indian-held Kashmir.
The newspaper, however, pointed out that when asked about his turbulent past, Mr Sharif insisted recently that he is a changed man, made wiser by years of imprisonment and exile. “We are not angels -- we all learn from our mistakes,” he said.
Although in their leaks to the media, senior US officials are expressing their concerns over Mr Sharif’s past, they are not saying that they definitely want him out of any future government in Pakistan.