Frist Urges Democratic Reform in Pakistan

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (search) stressed Washington's desire to see progress toward democracy in Pakistan, and said a decision by the country's military ruler to renege on a promise to step down as army chief could send "the wrong signal."

He called Pakistan a "tremendous ally in the global war on terrorism," but added after a meeting with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf (search) in the capital that U.S.-Pakistani relations would mature based on the South Asian nation's continued progress toward democratic rule.

"The United States and our government and our Congress are of course very interested in seeing civilian democratic rule as soon as possible," said Frist, a Tennessee Republican.

Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless 1999 coup, had promised to give us his military post and serve as a civilian president by the end of last year. He later reversed himself, saying he would stay on in the interest of stability and continuity.

In an interview with Pakistan's Geo television, Musharraf defended his decision to renege on his pledge.

"The constitution allows me and the assemblies (Parliament) have said I can keep the two appointments, of the army chief and the president," Musharraf said.

Critics say the move was a major blow to democracy in a nation that has been ruled by the military for the majority of its 47 years.

Frist, who also met with Pakistan's foreign minister and a group of legislators, said the issue of the army post did not come up in conversations with Musharraf, but that there was concern in the United States about the general's change of heart.

"We didn't talk specifically about it. We probably should have brought it up. There is some concern about his reversal — and the signals that it could send — to give up his army title. Our constituents at home would ask the question, or make the statement, 'Does that send the wrong signal?"'

In a statement, Pakistan's Foreign Ministry said the discussions also focused on finding a solution to the decades-old dispute over Kashmir, the divided Himalayan region that both Pakistan and India claim in its entirety, and Afghanistan.

The Senate delegation — which also included Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (search), Republican of Kentucky; Sen. Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota; and Sen. Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio — was fresh off a trip to Iraq and India, and was also visiting Afghanistan.