WASHINGTON - President Bush urged Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf yesterday to "restore democracy as quickly as possible," choosing mild disappointment over punishment or more pointed rhetoric to react to the declaration of emergency rule in antiterrorism ally Pakistan.
Bush did not speak directly to Musharraf, a leader who took power in a 1999 coup but whom he has previously hailed as a friend he trusts and as a strong defender of freedom. Instead, the president handed that task to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who spoke with the Pakistani leader on the developing crisis for about 20 minutes from her plane en route home from the Middle East.
Bush said he directed Rice to deliver this message: "We expect there to be elections as soon as possible and that the president should remove his military uniform."
They were the president's first public comments on the situation since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency, suspended his country's constitution, ousted the country's top judge, stifled independent media and deployed troops to crush dissent. He called it necessary to prevent a takeover by Islamic extremists.
Bush mixed concern for Musharraf's actions with praise for Pakistan's cooperation in combatting Al Qaeda terrorists believed to be rebuilding strongholds on the largely lawless border with Afghanistan.
"President Musharraf has been a strong fighter against extremists and radicals," Bush said at the end of an Oval Office meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Even a senior administration official, at a White House briefing, merely called Musharraf "a friend who we think has done something ill-advised." The official spoke on condition of anonymity so he could talk more freely about the behind-the-scenes thoughts of the White House.
Despite billions in US aid to Pakistan since Musharraf declared himself a war-on-terror partner after the 2001 attacks, Bush appeared resigned that the United States has little leverage to influence Musharraf's behavior.
"Our hope now is that he hurry back to elections," Bush said. "All we can do is continue to work with the president as well as others in the Pak government to make it abundantly clear the position of the United States."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, warned against being too soft.
"Pakistan will only be a reliable and capable ally against terrorism when its government is not seen as an enemy by its own people," she said.
But Representative Duncan Hunter of California, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, warned against being too hasty with rebukes. "As politics in Pakistan continue evolving, we should not rush to abandon Musharraf but work with him to get Pakistan back on the path toward democracy," he said.
The White House said it is reviewing US assistance to Pakistan in light of the developments. Such aid has amounted to $9.6 billion dollars since 2001, not including another $800 million the administration is requesting from Congress for the current budget year.
Bush would not discuss any consequences if Musharraf fails to reverse course. "It's a hypothetical," he said.