TUMULT IN PAKISTAN: Bush stands by troubled ally

TUMULT IN PAKISTAN: Bush stands by troubled ally
Pakistan 's Musharraf faces new challenge after court reverses ouster of nation's chief justice
By Bay Fang
July 21, 2007 : Chicago Tribune

Faced with a growing series of challenges to one of its key allies in the war on terror, the Bush administration expressed its continued support for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf on Friday after his nation's Supreme Court reversed his controversial ousting of a top judge.

The court's ruling that Musharraf had illegally suspended Pakistan's chief justice was joyously celebrated by political opponents who have staged widespread demonstrations against him in recent months, and was issued just as the country is enduring a spate of bombing attacks following the army's uprooting of militants from the Red Mosque last week in Islamabad, the capital.

The mounting problems of Musharraf, an army general who took power in a 1999 coup, have raised questions about his ability to remain in command and whether a successor would continue with efforts to aid Washington in combatting Al Qaeda and other radical Islamists in the region.

But administration officials emphasized Friday that Musharraf still has their confidence and support, despite criticism that Washington has placed too much stock in the trouble-plagued general.

"The government of Pakistan is facing difficult challenges," said Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman. "But the important thing for us to do is to be able to work with President Musharraf, with other political leaders, with those who want to see and share President Musharraf's vision and our vision of Pakistan as a modern, moderate Islamic state ... and a full partner with the international community in confronting extremism."

Pakistan 's ambassador to the U.S. , Mahmud Ali Durrani, insisted meanwhile that the court's ruling would not weaken Musharraf and instead showed the strength of the country's democratic processes.

"Why should U.S. policy change?" Durrani asked. "Musharraf is not weaker or stronger, he is as he was."

In a surprise ruling Friday, the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Musharraf had "illegally" suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry on charges of misconduct. The court ordered that Chaudhry, who had become a reluctant hero to government opponents, be restored to his post.

The ruling not only appeared to undermine Musharraf's authority and bolster his opposition, but it could have a serious direct impact on his bid to remain in the presidency. The general plans to ask the sitting parliament to grant him a new five-year term before it is replaced in elections in January, but that bid is expected to be legally challenged by his opponents before the Supreme Court.

When Musharraf suspended Chaudhry, critics said he was trying to sideline the independent-minded chief justice in order to appoint someone who would be more sympathetic to his agenda.

Outside the courtroom in Islamabad , Pakistan , on Friday, lawyers chanted "Go, Musharraf, go!" and renewed demands that the president step down. The decision also prompted joyful demonstrations in other major Pakistani cities, including Karachi , Quetta , Peshawar and Rawalpindi .

Exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto declared the court's rebuke of Musharraf to be one of the most remarkable judgments in the history of Pakistan 's judiciary.

The movement in support of Chaudhry had "turned into struggle against dictatorship, [for the] restoration of the constitution and for supremacy of the parliament," she said in a statement.

Others echoed the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. by arguing that the judgment was actually beneficial to Musharraf because it may allow him to defuse the immediate crisis.

"Had it gone the other way, people would be on the streets, and there would be riots," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence Research. "Now, he'll still be president, he still has his uniform on, and he'll have mileage from the Red Mosque incident that will give him leverage to go after the extremists."

But the spiraling violence across the country in the past week adds to the sense that the government is losing its grip on power. Musharraf's government also faces questions in Washington about its commitment to the war on terror.

The National Intelligence Estimate released earlier this week by the Bush administration said that Al Qaeda had established a "safe haven" in the federally administered tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, and blamed the Pakistani government's decision last year to scale back its military operations in the region.

However, the Bush administration continues to say that Musharraf is doing all it can.

"There's no question President Musharraf is taking on extremism," said Frances Townsend, Bush's homeland security adviser.

Still, some think the U.S. needs to start contemplating another strategy, in the event that Musharraf is not able to maintain power.

"I think our relationship with Pakistan needs to be reconsidered," said former Indiana Rep. Lee Hamilton, who was co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group. "We have been precluded from going into Pakistan after [Osama] bin Laden because of our agreement with Musharraf, but we should reconsider that. ... What has driven our relationship with Pakistan is the fear that an alternative to Musharraf would be radical leadership with a bomb."

Husain Haqqani, a Boston University political science professor, said, "The U.S. has falsely convinced itself that Musharraf is the only option in Pakistan . But most political players, except extremist Islamists, are willing to work with the U.S. Why put all their eggs in Musharraf's increasingly broken basket?"

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