WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States' second-ranking diplomat on Thursday signaled that the Bush administration is distancing itself from Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf after opposition victories in last week's elections.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told senators that the United States is supporting Pakistan's people as they choose their leaders after the parliamentary elections. But he made scant mention of Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Senior Bush administration officials, including Negroponte, have previously underlined their view that Musharraf has been "indispensable" to the U.S.-led fight against extremists along Pakistan's rugged border with Afghanistan.
Negroponte testified that "Pakistan has been indispensable" to that fight and said the U.S. looks "forward to working with the leaders who emerge" from the formation of a new government.
When pressed by a lawmaker about whether the U.S. would continue to back Musharraf, Negroponte acknowledged that "Musharraf is still the president of his country, and we look forward to continuing to work with him."
U.S. lawmakers and Pakistani opposition leaders have criticized the administration for its steadfast support of the former army general despite his crackdown on the opposition, judiciary and media. The U.S. administration promoted Musharraf as a moderate leader able to hold together the nuclear-armed country.
But Musharraf has faced intense criticism since he declared a state of emergency in November and purged the Supreme Court before it could rule on the disputed legality of his re-election as president a month earlier.
Republican Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana said the United States should make it clear to Pakistan's people that U.S. interests "lay not in supporting a particular leader or party, but in democracy, pluralism, stability and the fight against violence."
The parties of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, finished first and second in the Feb. 18 parliamentary elections. The Pakistan Muslim League-Q, a party loyal to Musharraf, lost heavily.
Negroponte said Pakistan's recent elections were a "big step" toward civilian democracy and reflected the will of the voters, despite the deaths of more than 70 people on election day.
"The violence could have been worse," Negroponte said. "The Pakistani people refused to be intimidated by a wave of murderous terrorist attacks prior to election day."
Democratic Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., also urged the administration to move from "a policy focused on a personality, Musharraf, to one based on an entire country."
Biden proposed that the United States triple nonmilitary aid for schools, roads and clinics and demand accountability in the military aid the U.S. gives Pakistan.
The United States has pumped nearly $10 billion in aid into Pakistan since Musharraf sided with Washington in the drive to topple the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and hunt down al-Qaida after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.