WASHINGTON, Feb 21: The United States on Thursday was sending conflicting signals on its position on the current political situation in Pakistan, with the White House saying that it’s up to the Pakistani people to decide President Pervez Musharraf’s political future and the State Department insisting that Washington hopes to continue to work with the embattled leader.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush has telephoned his Pakistani counterpart to discuss the situation resulting from his supporters’ loss in parliamentary elections earlier this week, the White House said.

A transcript released in Washington, quoted White House press secretary Dana Perino as saying that Mr Bush made the statement about the need for new political leadership in Pakistan to work with the United States in the war against terror after he had spoken with Mr Musharraf.

Ms Perino would not reveal what the two leaders discussed but said Mr Bush had supported Mr Musharraf all along because he “helped Pakistan on its path to democracy” and had been a good partner in the war against terror.

Then she made a remark that appears to dispel the impression that the United States was quietly helping President Musharraf retain his official position. It is “up to the Pakistani people to decide” whether Mr Musharraf continued as president or not, she said.

But America’s pointsman for South Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told journalists in Brussels that Washington still hoped to keep working with President Musharraf and whatever government emerged following Pakistan’s election.

His statement confirms what the State Department said on Wednesday: it hopes that the victors of Monday’s elections in Pakistan can choose a prime minister who will work with President Musharraf.

Mr Boucher’s comments come amid media reports that US Ambassador Anne Patterson has met the leaders of the PPP and other political parties as they struggle to form the new government.

The State Department, however, issued a separate statement on her meetings, saying that Ambassador Patterson has held regular discussions with members of all major political parties and Pakistani officials to “express our support for a fully democratic Pakistan”.

US Embassy officials, the department said, had been in contact with all major political leaders and the government of Pakistan throughout the election process.

While the State Department offered no comments on media reports that the United States wanted the new government to accept Mr Musharraf as president for the next five years, Mr Boucher did say that Washington saw the Pakistani leader continuing his new role as a civilian president.

“We look forward to working with whoever emerges as prime minister, we look forward to working with President Musharraf in his new role,” said Mr Boucher.

“He’s now a civilian president” having given up his military role and “with a civilian prime minister emerging in the country they are going to have to settle into what their futures and responsibilities are, what they want to undertake each in their own position.”

Mr Boucher also hailed the Pakistan election as one that the Pakistan people “can be proud of”.

One of the noteworthy points that arose from the voting, he said, was that “the religious parties didn’t do very well”.

The US official also hoped that the new government in the NWFP would be led by “some of the more moderate and nationalist” parties who won the election.The United States was not happy with the MMA government in NWFP as analysts in Washington believed that it hindered America’s efforts to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists hiding in the tribal belt.

Mr Boucher also made it clear that the US commitment “to help Pakistan with education, with economic growth, with healthcare and with providing security for its people” would continue despite the expected political change in Islamabad.

The United States hoped “to work with the new government on all these things”, he said.

At the State Department in Washington, spokesman Sean McCormack told journalists that Mr Musharraf “is the president of Pakistan,” when asked what role the US expected Mr Musharraf to play in the new political scenario.

Mr McCormack also rejected the suggestion that the United States was trying to form a government for Pakistan.

“I can’t predict for you who will comprise that government, who will be the prime minister, who will be the minister of defence, minister of foreign affairs,” he said.

“That’s for the Pakistanis to decide, and we’re certainly not in any way, shape or form going to try to decide for them. That is their decision.”

Mr McCormack also said that the United States would have no say in deciding whether the president or the prime minister would have more powers in the new political arrangement in Islamabad.

“How the Pakistanis arrange themselves politically, what powers they endow certain offices with, whether it’s the prime minister’s office or the president’s office or any other office -- it’s going to be for them to decide in the context of their constitution and their laws,” he said.


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