Rice Urges Pakistan to Return to Democracy

The Bush administration said Saturday it was deeply disturbed by the state of emergency in Pakistan and urged a swift return to a democratic and civilian government.

"The U.S. has made clear it does not support extraconstitutional measures because those measures take Pakistan away from the path of democracy and civilian rule," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.

Rice said that to her knowledge, U.S. officials had yet to hear directly from Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, after his declaration.

"Whatever happens we will be urging a quick return to civilian rule" Rice told reporters traveling with her, and a "return to constitutional order and the commitment to free and fair elections."

Musharraf suspended the constitution ahead of a Supreme Court ruling on his future as president and replaced the chief justice. His government blocked transmissions of private news channels in several Pakistani cities. Telephone services in the capital were cut.

He came close in August to declaring a state of emergency, but decided against it after strong opposition from inside and outside his government, and after a late night phone call from Rice in Washington.

On Saturday, Rice said that she has been in touch with Musharraf in the past few days. Rice, in Turkey for a conference with Iraq's neighbors, would not discuss the timing or details of the conversations.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. was "deeply disturbed" by the developments in Pakistan, which under Musharraf has been a strong U.S. ally in the fight against terrorism.

"A state of emergency would be a sharp setback for Pakistani democracy and takes Pakistan off the path toward civilian rule," McCormack said in a statement.

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, claimed a sweeping victory in voting Oct. 6. He has pledged to quit the army before starting a new five-year term, but declined on election night to say whether he would accept a negative verdict from the court.

"President Musharraf has stated repeatedly that he will step down as chief of army staff before retaking the presidential oath of office and has promised to hold elections by January 15th," McCormack said, referring to parliamentary voting. "We expect him to uphold these commitments and urge him to do so immediately."

At the White House, officials tracking the fast-moving developments had no immediate public response. But the strong-armed maneuvers by Musharraf appeared to be a clear blow to the Bush administration, which has aggressively tried to stem any move toward authoritarianism in Pakistan, an important ally in the fight against terrorism.

McCormack offered words of support for pro-democracy efforts in Pakistan.

"The United States stands with the people of Pakistan in supporting a democratic process and in countering violent extremism," McCormack said. "We urge all parties to work together to complete the transition to democracy and civilian rule without violence or delay."

Adm. William Fallon, the chief of the U.S. Central Command, met with Musharraf and other top generals on Friday to discuss the security situation in northwest Pakistan, where Islamic militants have expanded their reach beyond traditional tribal regions.

A spokesman for Pakistan's army denied newspaper reports suggesting Fallon had offered to provide U.S. troops to help tackle the insurgency in Swat, where a hard-line cleric is trying to enforce Taliban-style rule. Several policemen have been decapitated in the region in recent weeks.

President Bush long has counted on Musharraf as a terrorism-fighting partner. The Pakistani leader aligned himself with the United States following the Sept. 11 attacks and helped U.S. and coalition forces battle al-Qaida, which had used Pakistan as a safe haven.

In recent months, however, Bush and members of his Cabinet have urged Musharraf to allow free presidential elections instead of fighting to retain power.

Critics opposed his plan to seek a new five-year presidential term from outgoing lawmakers and his continued holding of the dual posts of president and chief of the military.