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US steps up contact with Sharif after Benazir's assassination: CSM    2008-01-03 05:50:02    

Washington, Jan 3 : Given the present scenario, the United States is reviewing its options, including a warming up towards former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the top opposition leader in the absence of a slain Benazir Bhutto, the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) has said.
Given the present scenario, the United States is reviewing its options, including a warming up towards former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the top opposition leader in the absence of a slain Benazir Bhutto, the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) has said.

The US is reportedly persuading Sharif to call off his boycott of the parliamentary elections.

But these contacts may have been complicated by the interim government's decision to postpone elections till February 18, the CSM added.

The US has argued for elections to be held on schedule, but also left room for a short delay for organisational reasons.

But the opposition, including Sharif's faction of the Pakistan Muslim League and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, has said that any delay is unjustified and would only certify the government's transparent attempt to prevent an opposition victory galvanised by Bhutto's assassination.

Sharif's party, the PML-N, has responded to the six-week election postponement by renewing its call for Musharraf's resignation and for the creation of a "neutral caretaker government."

Despite Sharif's call for opposition parties to unite around a goal of removing Musharraf from power, most observers say this will be difficult as opposition parties scramble to improve their own prospects.

According to the CSM, what Sharif is really doing by calling for opposition unity, though he knows it probably won't be forthcoming, is positioning himself as the new opposition leader.

Selig Harrison, Asia Programme director at the Centre for International Policy in Washington, said that the US should take up Sharif's idea of a neutral caretaker government, not as a means of support for Sharif, but as a way to better ensure that the February elections are not rigged in Musharraf's favour.

Several experts have said that US influence in Pakistan is waning, even though the Bush Administration continues with its unwavering support of Musharraf and showers his regime with billions of dollars in aid to fight Islamist extremists.

"Our influence could still be considerable in bringing about an interim caretaker government, if we are prepared to use our leverage," Harrison claimed.

Realising that President Musharraf is weakened and increasingly isolated, Washington is taking the pragmatic step of cautiously reaching out to other possible winners in Pakistan's political strife, the CSM said.

The US action "recognises that, very likely if there is going to be a viable and acceptable leader of the opposition in the near future, it's going to be Nawaz Sharif," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former Pakistan analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence.

If Sharif is to rise in Pakistan, it could advance Saudi Arabia's goal of becoming a weightier force in regional and Muslim-world affairs - a scenario the US would not be disposed to fight, the CSM said.

A key reason is the Bush Administration's interest in containing the Saudi rival, Iran - which is Pakistan's neighbour, it added.

Saudi Arabia "has right along had considerable influence in Pakistan," said Weinbaum, now a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

"Some people in Washington are uneasy at the thought of Sharif in a position of power that would mean that Saudi influence would be extended, but let's not forget the Saudis are still our allies," he claimed. (ANI)
© 2007 ANI

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