WASHINGTON – President Bush personally told Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf Wednesday that he must hold parliamentary elections and relinquish his post as head of his country's army.
"You can't be the president and the head of the military at the same time," Bush said, describing a telephone call with Musharraf. "I had a very frank discussion with him."
Bush revealed the call to Musharraf during an appearance at Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Since Musharraf declared emergency rule on Saturday, the White House has faced repeated questions about why Bush was taking a relatively soft line against the crackdown and had not spoken directly to the Pakistani leader, a man he has previously called a friend he trusts.
"My message was that we believe strongly in elections, and that you ought to have elections soon, and you need to take off your uniform," Bush said.
Earlier, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told Congress on Wednesday that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is an "indispensable" ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and that "partnership with Pakistan and its people is the only option."
In prepared testimony, Negroponte also told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that administration officials "strongly disagree" with Musharraf's crackdown on his political opponents.
"We strongly counseled against emergency rule, but Pakistan's leadership did not follow our advice," Negroponte said.
His remarks echoed the Bush administration's position in the days since Musharraf declared emergency rule. His remarks acknowledge an ongoing review of U.S. aid to Pakistan in light of the crisis, but don't announce changes to U.S. policy.
The administration's public response to the crisis in Pakistan has been mild and measured, out of concern of going too far in rebuking a close anti-terrorism ally. It stands in sharp contrast to how the administration responded when Myanmar's military regime cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in September, for instance.
Negroponte was facing a skeptical Democratic-led Congress. Many lawmakers say the U.S. should consider cutting off foreign aid to Pakistan and that Musharraf shouldn't be so readily praised.
"We have the worst of all possible worlds," said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who chairs the panel's subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia. "Our ally is an isolated and deeply resented leader who is less popular with his own people than Osama bin Laden."
The White House on Wednesday defended its handling of the situation.
"It's been about five days," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "I grant you that it feels long for all of us who are interested in wanting to get instant reaction. We are trying to get Pakistan back on its path to democracy."
Congress and the Bush administration are taking a second look at U.S. aid to Pakistan in the wake of Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule. Musharraf says his actions, which include suspending his country's constitution and ousting its top judge, were necessary to prevent a takeover by Islamic extremists.