ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The prime minister of this deeply conservative Islamic nation waded into U.S. politics during an interview with The Associated Press, saying he wishes President Bush well in his re-election bid this November.
Zafarullah Khan Jamali's (search) comment was a rare taking-of-sides by a world leader in another country's election, and one that is particularly unusual given the American president's low standing among Muslims angered over the war in Iraq, U.S. support for Israel and allegations that American servicemen abused Iraqi prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison (search) outside Baghdad.
"Today we are lucky with the Republicans that the president, his secretary of state, the vice president and the secretary of defense — they all have a personal relationship with Pakistan, and also as a government, so that I think is a much better bet as far as Pakistan-American relations are concerned," Jamali said Wednesday at his official residence on a hilltop overlooking the capital.
He said the contest between Bush and Sen. John Kerry (search), the presumptive Democratic candidate, is a matter for the American people to decide, and that Pakistani-U.S. relations go beyond personalities.
But he added:
"What the results of those elections are we must wait and see, though I would wish President Bush well, definitely."
Kerry has said that many world leaders have told him privately that they would like to see him as president, but he has refused to name them.
Pakistan is a staunch U.S. ally. In return for its support in the war on terrorism, the nation has received billions of dollars in aid, a stunning reversal after years in the wilderness following it and India's tit-for-tat nuclear tests in 1998.
The tests led to sanctions under then President Clinton, a Democrat, and Pakistan's relationship with Washington soured further after President Gen. Pervez Musharraf staged a bloodless coup the following year.
But ties improved as Musharraf carved out a role as a fierce supporter of the fight against Al Qaeda, arresting hundreds of militants and moving tens of thousands of troops into previously autonomous tribal regions near the border with Afghanistan.
The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis were opposed to the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Bush's recent support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from some Palestinian land has earned the scorn of religious conservatives and mainstream Pakistanis alike. Pakistan does not recognize the Jewish state.
Jamali also said his government had unearthed a plot by a band of four to six terrorists to hijack and possibly blow up a plane heading to the United Arab Emirates. Pakistani airports have been on high alert since Tuesday.
Jamali, who as head of government can be removed by Musharraf, also commented on his own nation's return to democracy since the coup.
Musharraf has endorsed a constitutional amendment that will force him to quit as chief of the armed forces on Jan. 1, 2005, but remain as the civilian president. Some observers say Musharraf will have difficulty retaining power without the muscle his military role affords him, but Jamali said he has no reason to believe the president would renege on his promise.
"President Musharraf has honored all his commitments and the promises he has given," Jamali said. "It is there in the constitution and I see no reason why the constitution would not be respected. I think it will be respected, definitely."
Jamali said the march toward democracy was important to Pakistan, and brushed off opposition complaints of heavy-handed treatment.
"The opposition today has been very comfortable, let me tell you that," Jamali said. "They have not been harassed, there have been no cases against anybody. Nobody has been jailed. Nobody is tortured."
Opposition figures tell a different story.
Javed Hashmi, the head of a coalition of opposition parties called the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy, was arrested and sentenced last month to 23 years in prison for trying to incite the army against Musharraf. The sentence has been heavily criticized by international rights groups.
Supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have complained this week that dozens of their members have been arrested ahead of the likely return of Sharif's brother to face murder charges in the eastern city of Lahore.
Jamali also stressed that Pakistani democracy must always remain in accordance with the teachings of Islam.