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US wants polls on Jan 8, or soon after

December 29, 2007

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WASHINGTON, Dec 28: The United States is opposed to re-imposition of emergency in Pakistan and hopes that former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination will not cause a long delay in parliamentary elections, officials said.

Both White House and State Department officials, while talking to journalists, said they hoped the elections would be held on Jan 8, as scheduled, or soon after.

“We want to see smooth and safe elections go forward,” Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher told a briefing in Washington.

Asked if the United States wants the election to be held on Jan 8, as scheduled before the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, Mr Boucher said: “We have seen no indication of a change in election schedule.”

When reminded that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s second most popular leader after Ms Bhutto, had already announced that he would boycott the elections if they were held on Jan. 8, Mr Boucher said: “We don’t know what that statement means at this stage.”

Despite this strong expression of support for democracy, the US administration still seems committed to backing the Musharraf government.

“I don’t think that this is a fair question,” said Mr Boucher when asked if the US would continue to support President Musharraf despite the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

To support or not to support Mr Musharraf, he said, was not an option. “The option is to fight or not to fight terrorism.”

He also disagreed with the suggestion that President Musharraf had failed in protecting Ms Bhutto.

“I think that starts to pre-judge what happened on Thursday,” he said. “There needs to be a thorough investigation on how that happened and who did it. These questions need to be answered after the investigation.”

But there is a realisation in Washington that Ms Bhutto’s death has made it even more difficult for the US to continue to follow its strategy of supporting the democratic process without withdrawing support to President Musharraf.

After the assassination, however, the United States appears to have increased its emphasis on democracy.

Mr Boucher said that both Mr Bush, who spoke to President Musharraf on Thursday, and Ms Rice, who telephoned Asif Ali Zardari and other PPP leaders, emphasised this point in their conversation with Pakistani leaders.

“Our basic hope is that all those who want democracy will continue to work for that,” he said. “We absolutely want to see the process of transition to democracy to go forward.”

Other officials, while talking to the US media, said their greatest concern was to control violence, using both political and military means.

They said they feared that if not controlled now, violence would prove too much even for the Pakistani military.

Mr Boucher, however, said that President Bush offered to help Pakistan deal with the consequences of the assassination when he spoke with President Musharraf.

“Pakistan has a lot of friends in the United States … committed to help Pakistan move forward as a stable, modern and moderate country,” Mr Boucher said.

He said the US was emphasising the need to move forward on the road to democracy also because it believed “that’s what Ms Bhutto worked for and gave her life for.”

“Certainly we wouldn’t want to see a re-imposition of emergency law,” said State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey. “And I am not aware that in any of our conversations with Pakistani officials anyone has suggested that emergency law – or emergency rule might be re-imposed.”