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US administration not changing Pakistan policy

January 29, 2008

WASHINGTON, Jan 28: US Congress appears more sympathetic to the Pakistani opposition than the US administration, which showed little interest in their demands for the restoration of the previous judiciary in Pakistan and a UN-led probe into the murder of Benazir Bhutto.

But the warm reception two opposition delegations from Pakistan received on Capitol Hill this week, also reflects the changing mood of politics in America where Democrats are openly distancing themselves from the rulers in Islamabad.

The first to arrive in Washington was a Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf delegation led by none other than its chief, Imran Khan. The PTI chief had two items on his agenda: seeking US support for the restoration of the judiciary and convincing the Americans that an election at this stage would further destabilise Pakistan.

Soon after his arrival, Mr Khan announced that he is not seeking to see Bush administration officials because Washington will have a new administration in a year and he sees no benefit in meeting an outgoing administration.

But it was not clear whether it was Mr Khan who refused to see them or it was the administration which was not very keen on meeting a PTI delegation.

Mr Khan’s reception on the Hill was the warmest ever the former cricketer has had in the US legislature. He met a number of senior lawmakers, but the meetings did not lead to any expression of support for PTI’s demands. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid did issue a statement after the meeting, urging the Bush administration to suspend financial aid to Pakistan if the Feb 18 elections are rigged but it made no mention of Mr Khan’s demands to postpone the elections or to restore the judiciary.

The PPP delegation, headed by its Information Secretary Sherry Rehman, had larger meetings and keener audience, both on the Hill and in the administration.

Top on their agenda was to seek US support for PPP’s demand for a UN-led probe into Ms Bhutto’s murder. They also demanded a greater United States involvement in ensuring that the Feb 18 elections are fair and free.

Those on the Hill strongly supported both the demands. Some even issued statements saying that they thought the UN involvement in the investigation would add credibility to the process and would have calming affect on the situation in Pakistan.

“It is imperative that the United States continues to work with our Pakistani counterparts in support of liberty and democracy,” said Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, co-chair of the Pakistan Caucus on Capitol Hill after her meeting with the PPP delegation.

Sources in the administration, however, told Dawn that US officials listened patiently when Ms Rehman and other members of the delegation raised their demand for a UN-led probe and a greater US involvement in the electoral process but made no commitment.

Instead, they urged the delegation to look ahead and work with other parties to ensure that Pakistan is able to achieve a stable democratic setup after the elections.

The officials assured them that the US administration is committed to democracy and hopes that the upcoming elections will be “reasonably” fair.

Apparently, the US administration does not want to change its Pakistan policy so close to the US election, due in November, and wants the new administration to deal with a post-election situation in Pakistan.

Those on the Hill have a similar attitude but they are more sympathetic to political forces in Pakistan. During their meetings with the PPP delegation, the lawmakers made it obvious they support a democratic transition in Pakistan and want Washington to support “the Pakistani people rather than an individual,” as Senator Reid said.

They also indicated that if the Democrats win the 2008 presidential election, these views will also show in the policies of the new administration.

Since Ms Rehman was with Benazir Bhutto on that fateful evening when she was shot, US lawmakers and officials were both very keen on learning from her how the shooting happened and who she thought was responsible for her death.