WASHINGTON, Dec 30: Leading US presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton on Sunday rejected the call for President Pervez Musharraf to step down, but said he should fulfil the promises he has made over the years.

“I am not calling for him to step down,” she said in an interview to ABC News.

“I am calling for him, number one to agree with an independent investigation of Benazir Bhutto’s death (and) to hold free and fair elections with independent monitors.”

Ms Clinton said that if President Musharraf were to step down at this point, it may create a difficult situation.

“Who would take his place, how would that ever be worked out?” she asked. “This is not a country which has a history of peaceful successions.”

Instead, Ms Clinton placed the onus on President Musharraf, saying that this was an opportunity for him to “step up and actually fulfil many of the words and promises that he has made to me and to others over the course a number of years.”

Earlier, while addressing an election rally in Iowa, Ms Clinton raised the possibility that the Pakistani establishment may have also been involved in Ms Bhutto’s assassination.

Ms Clinton’s remarks followed Islamabad’s rejection of a call for an independent international investigation of the murder that she and another US presidential candidate John Edwards proposed on Friday.

During a question-and-answer session at an elementary school in Iowa on Saturday afternoon, Ms Clinton offered a detailed prescription for Pakistan’s troubles, suggesting that the US divert aid away from its military to social welfare programs.“I’d like to see more of our aid shifted toward building civil society. I’ve been calling for this. I have legislation that is bi-partisan, Education for All that is particularly aimed,” she said.

And for the second time in as many days, Ms Clinton cast doubt on Islamabad’s contention that the suicide bombing that led to the death of the country’s most popular opposition leader was masterminded by Al Qaeda.

“I call on President Musharraf and the Pakistani government to realize that this is in the interests of Pakistan to understand whether or not it was Al Qaeda or some other offshoot extremist group that is attempting to further destabilize and even overthrow the Pakistani government,” she said, “or whether it came from within, either explicitly or implicitly, the security forces or the military in Pakistan.”

In August, Ms Clinton’s aides accused rival presidential candidate Barack Obama of helping to destabilize the nuclear-armed Pakistan by suggesting he’d deploy US forces in the country to hunt for Osama bin Laden.

On Saturday, however, Ms Clinton also suggested disempowering Pakistan’s “feudal landowning leadership,” who she said were led by President Musharraf, and has protected Al Qaeda to preserve its tenuous grip on power.

In an interview on Friday, Ms Clinton called for an international probe into Ms Bhutto’s assassination, saying “there was no reason to trust the Pakistani government.”

An Interior Ministry spokesman in Islamabad rejected that suggestion, saying, “I think we are capable of handling it.”

Meanwhile, an opinion survey released this weekend show that most Americans believe Ms Clinton is better equipped to deal with the situation confronting a key US ally like Pakistan today.

In her interview to ABC, Ms Clinton was asked if the United States could face the similar situation in Pakistan that it faced in Iran during the Islamic revolution of 1979.

“That is very possible,” she said.

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