Bush optimistic over Pakistan after Musharraf's promises

Pakistani president announces plans to lift state of emergency, free opposition leader from house arrest, hold parliamentary elections by Feb. 15.

bush ranch 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush ranch 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
US President George W. Bush backed Pakistan's President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Saturday despite the embattled leader's detour off the path of democracy to impose emergency rule and arrest thousands of opponents. Pakistan was plunged into political turmoil a week ago when Musharraf declared a state of emergency - a move his critics claim was an attempt to cling to power. Hours before Bush spoke, Musharraf's government announced plans to lift the state of emergency within one month, release opposition leader Benazir Bhutto from house arrest and hold parliamentary elections by Feb. 15 - one month later than originally scheduled. Bush called these "positive steps" - words that left no doubt the United States remained squarely behind the Pakistani leader in the fight against Islamic militants. "I take a person for his word until otherwise," Bush said during a news conference at his Texas ranch with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Bush refrained from directly criticizing Musharraf. He said that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Pakistani leader followed through with a pledge to help fight al-Qaida. "If you're the chief operating officer of al-Qaida, you haven't had a good experience," Bush said. "There has been four or five No. 3s that have been brought to justice one way or the other, and many of those folks thought they could find safe haven in Pakistan. And that would not have happened without President Musharraf honoring his word." He noted that Musharraf now has promised to lift emergency rule, resign as army chief and hold elections. "He has declared that he'll take off his uniform, and he has declared there will be elections, which are positive steps," Bush said. Musharraf insists he called the emergency to help fight Islamic extremists who control swathes of territory near the Afghan border. The main targets of his subsequent crackdown, however, have been his most outspoken critics, including the increasingly independent courts and media. Thousands of people have been arrested, TV news stations taken off air, and judges removed. In an interview on Friday with The Dallas Morning News, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called Musharraf a "reasonable man" who made a poor political decision. "We think this was a bad decision. Full stop. A bad decision," Rice said. "I don't have any doubt that he is somebody who tries to have the best interests of his country at heart." National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters the administration was willing to give Musharraf a chance to change course. "We'll see if he does what he says," Hadley said. "And if he does not do what he says, then there will be issues for President Musharraf, obviously, with his people, and there will be issues with us." Merkel arrived Friday with her husband, Joachim Sauer, for an overnight visit at Bush's ranch. Their talks spanned the globe, from Afghanistan to Iran and from Russia to Kosovo to the United Nations. Teheran's defiance of international demands that it halt its uranium enrichment program was a major topic of discussion. Russia and China - two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - are blocking the UN from moving toward a third set of harsher sanctions against Iran. Both Bush and Merkel emphasized that diplomatic efforts with Iran have not yet been exhausted. Bush dismissed a question about when patience with Iran would run out. "What the Iranian regime must understand is that we will continue to work together to solve this problem diplomatically, which means they will continue to be isolated," said Bush, who has recently warned that a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to World War III. Merkel said all members of the Security Council must be engaged on the issue and said that if talks with Teheran "do not yield any results, further steps will have to be made." "We need to think about further possible sanctions and we do not only need to think about them but we need to talk and agree," she said through a translator. Hadley said China needed to play a more responsible role in getting Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. "China needs to recognize that it is going to be very dependent in the decades ahead on Middle East oil," he said. "Therefore, China, for its own development, its own purposes is going to need a stable Middle East, and an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is not a prescription for stability in the Middle East."