WASHINGTON – The Bush administration is counting on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf going ahead with upcoming parliamentary elections despite Benazir Bhutto's assassination in the hope they will cement steps toward restoring democracy.
Proceeding on or about on schedule with the Jan. 8 election through which Bhutto hoped to return to power is the biggest immediate concern in sustaining an American policy of promoting stability, moderation and democracy in the volatile nuclear-armed nation, U.S. officials said Friday.
Although Bhutto's death complicates American efforts to broker reconciliation between the opposition and an increasingly unpopular Musharraf, an essential ally in the war on terrorism, her passing is unlikely to prompt any major strategy shift or cuts in billions of dollars in U.S. aid, the officials said.
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In Crawford, Texas, where he is on vacation, President Bush made the points on Pakistan in a hour-long meeting with his national security team on Pakistan held via secure video link, the White House said.
"The president told his senior national security team that the United States needs to support democracy in Pakistan and help Pakistan in its struggle against extremism and terrorism," spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
Signing a condolence book for Bhutto at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice underlined the importance of keeping the democratic reform alive. "The way to honor her memory is to continue the democratic process in Pakistan, so that the democracy that she so hoped for will be completed," Rice said.
Other officials conceded the administration has little choice but to stay the course.
"There are not a lot of alternatives out there," said one. "We have an interest in seeing Pakistan be stable and seeing that the government there has a reasonable level of legitimacy and popular support. That has not and will not change."
Barring any fundamental breakdown in Pakistan's constitutional order, the officials did not see new restrictions on $300 million in assistance for Musharraf's government in 2008 beyond those Congress just imposed in an aid budget. It ties $50 million to improved counterterrorism work and democratic and judicial reforms.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's current internal thinking.
They said their main concerns now are the Jan. 8 elections taking place, how Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party will fare in the vote, and if it can sustain itself in parliament without its highly visible and charismatic former prime minister.
The State Department said its team in Washington, Islamabad and other Pakistani cities had been in close touch with representatives of the "broad political spectrum."
"We believe it's important that the political process, the process of developing Pakistan's democracy, continue," deputy spokesman Tom Casey said. He added, however, that the United States would not necessarily oppose a short postponement in the election if all parties agreed it was necessary.
"If an election can be held smoothly and safely on Jan. 8th, as currently scheduled, then, by all means, it should move forward," he told reporters. "If political parties and actors in the country come to some different conclusion, then certainly we'll take a look at it then."
Having invested major capital in engineering a possible power-sharing deal between Musharraf and Bhutto, President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others have called for the election to go ahead. U.S. diplomats are reaching out to moderate politicians in a bid to keep the effort on track, the officials said.
"Her departure from the scene is unfortunate and leaves a huge number of question marks because these parties are very personalized vehicles, but it doesn't change our basic goal of getting all the (moderates) to agree that extremism is not the future of the country, and working toward that end," said a second official.
"Of course, it's a wild card and it obviously unsettles her party, but it's a party with a coherent ideology and a more secular and moderate approach than others, so we don't see its supporters with anywhere else to go," the official said. "The goal is to keep them working together in at least some nominal way. That is still the objective."
The officials said they had no reason to believe that Bhutto's assassination would hurt her party's showing in the elections and said that, in fact, her death might galvanize support.
"They will probably win about as many seats or more as they would have with Bhutto or not, so we don't see much of a short-term electoral impact," the first official said.
The United States has pumped nearly $10 billion in aid into Pakistan since Musharraf became an indispensable counterterrorism ally after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Reversing course, he sided with the U.S. in the drive to topple the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and hunt down al-Qaida.
But Musharraf's recent actions — including a truce with tribal leaders in the northwest blamed for a surge in extremist activity, a clampdown on the opposition and judiciary, and his declaration of a state of emergency this fall — have sparked internal unrest and prompted concern from U.S lawmakers.
Some in Congress have accused the Bush administration of lax oversight in its massive post-9/11 assistance to Pakistan. Lawmakers for the first time put restrictions on such aid even after Musharraf lifted emergency rule and pledged that the January elections would be free and fair.
In the aftermath of Bhutto's assassination at a campaign rally on Thursday, several senior Democratic members of Congress, among them Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, said they would press for a full accounting. Both senators were a driving force behind the aid restrictions.
"The people of Pakistan deserve to know that the people of the United States stand with them as they struggle to restore constitutional government and to prevail over thuggery," Leahy said. "They will want to know that our military aid is no longer blind to their aspirations."
"The questions surrounding (Bhutto's) assassination should have direct bearing on both the future of democracy in Pakistan and the relationship we will have with a country that is so critical in the fight against global terrorism," Feingold said.
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