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US backs embattled Pakistani president

Thousands call for Musharraf's exit

FAISALABAD, Pakistan -- Top US officials visiting Pakistan this weekend reiterated their confidence in the country's president, Gen eral Pervez Musharraf, even as thousands of people took to the streets to demand his ouster.

Musharraf's public support here has been in free fall since March 9, when he suspended the nation's chief justice, a move that was widely seen as a bid to consolidate power before elections expected this year. Since then, a campaign to reinstate the judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, has evolved into a full-fledged movement to end eight years of military rule.

The United States has steadfastly backed Musharraf -- considered a crucial counterterrorism ally -- even as his government has cracked down on news media and opposition parties. That support continued Saturday, with Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte meeting with Musharraf and afterward deferring to the general on when he should step down as head of the Pakistani Army, as is required under the constitution if he wants to serve another term as president. Musharraf, a lifelong soldier, is reluctant to shed the uniform that represents his primary source of power.

"I think that is something that President Musharraf will himself want to decide," Negroponte said at a news conference in Islamabad, the capital.

Negroponte was joined in Pakistan by Assistant Secretary of State Richard A. Boucher and Adm iral William J. Fallon, chief of the US Central Command.

In an interview with a Pakistani television station, Negroponte also praised Musharraf's counterterrorism efforts, saying, "There's no equal to the government of Pakistan in terms of the effort it has made in the war on terror."

As Negroponte spoke, large crowds in towns between this city and Islamabad were cheering Chaudhry, demanding his reinstatement and calling for Musharraf to resign. Resentment toward the United States for sticking with Musharraf was palpable among the demonstrators.

Although the Bush administration has long said it supports Musharraf and democracy in Pakistan, many Pakistanis insist the two are now at odds. Musharraf's government has arrested more than 1,000 opposition activists in recent weeks and blocked transmission of television coverage deemed too critical. Musharraf has also said he will not allow exiled opposition leaders to return before the elections.

"America is supporting Musharraf against the people," said Zia ul-Haq, a teacher who shares a name with a Pakistani strongman who led the nation in the 1970s and '80s, also with heavy US backing. "The reason people hate America here is that they always support dictatorship in Pakistan."

Chaudhry has been touring Pakistan since his suspension, speaking to ever - larger audiences about the dangers of authoritarianism. In the pre dawn hours yesterday , he visited this gritty industrial city and addressed a crowd of several thousand people who had stayed up late to mark his arrival. A carnival-like air pervaded the streets, with necklaces of lights dangling from the trees and drum bands pounding.

The 170-mile trek from Islamabad to Faisalabad normally takes just more than three hours. But for Chaudhry's convoy, besieged by supporters, it took more than 18 hours. At the first stop, in the village of Chakwal, Chaudhry received a rock star's reception, with well-wishers showering his car with rose petals. Chaudhry posters were plastered on nearly every building and pole.