U.S. urges release of Bhutto since she has been placed under house detention
(USA Today & AP) The United States urged Pakistan to end the house arrest of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto Friday as Defense Secretary Robert Gates voiced concern that the political turmoil there will undermine the Pakistani army’s fight against terrorism.
Gates, speaking to reporters Friday on his plane en route home from a week-long visit to Asia, said that the longer the political turmoil in Islamabad continues, the greater the risk that it will distract the battle against insurgents.
And he said for the first time that Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s emergency declaration and the protests and arrests that it spawned could impact operations in Afghanistan.
“The concern I have is that the longer the internal problems continue, the more distracted the Pakistani army and security services will be in terms of the internal situation rather than focusing on the terrorist threat in the frontier area,” Gates said.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council said in a statement that “we remain concerned about the continued state of emergency and curtailment of basic freedoms, and urge Pakistani authorities to quickly return to constitutional order and democratic norms.”
“Former Prime Minister Bhutto and other political party members must be permitted freedom of movement and all protesters released,” said the statement by Johndroe, who accompanied President Bush to the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, for the weekend.
Pakistani police, backed by an armored vehicle, surrounded Bhutto’s Islamabad home early Friday morning.
Bhutto tried to leave by car but was blocked by police after a scuffle with her supporters who tried to remove a barricade.
Police reportedly rounded up 5,000 of her supporters to block her mass protest against emergency rule.
Kamal Shah, a top Interior Ministry official, said a district magistrate had served a “detention order” on Bhutto. However, speaking by phone from the scene, Bhutto said that no arrest papers had been served on her.
Information Minister Tariq Azim said Bhutto was not formally under house arrest, but “we will not allow any leader to carry out any rally,” he told the Associated Press.
The Bush administration said it is important for Pakistan’s future that moderate political forces be able to work together to put Pakistan back on a path to democracy.
The Pentagon has said the unrest has had no effect on U.S. military operations. But Gates’ comments underscore the nervousness of the Bush administration, even as it continues to voice support for Musharraf as a critical ally in the fight against terrorism.
Musharraf imposed emergency rule last weekend and suspended the constitution, triggering widespread protests in his own country, and setting off a flurry of diplomatic efforts in Washington to get him to restore democratic rule.
After nearly a week, Musharraf yielded somewhat to pressure from the United States on Thursday and said Pakistan would hold parliamentary election by mid-February — a month later than originally planned.
He still, however, has shown no sign of relinquishing his military post as chief of the army — another key demand of opposition leaders and the Bush administration.
Gates, in his meeting with reporters traveling with him, echoed White House views that Musharraf has been a staunch ally, and praised his move to set a new date for elections.
“We said from the very beginning it’s important to move back to constitutional processes as quickly as possible,” Gates said. “I think that there is building pressure for him to take off his uniform if he continues as president. But I think that setting the date for the elections was certainly an important first step.”
U.S. officials, including Bush in a personal phone call, pressed Musharraf to reschedule the election and drop his military role. And they said they planned to review U.S. aid to Pakistan, although they have said that funding for the fight against terrorism would not likely be at risk.
Since 2001, the U.S. has given Pakistan $9.6 billion in aid, and there is another $800 million the administration is requesting from Congress in the current budget year.
In other comments, Gates said it is too soon to tell whether reports that Iran has stemmed its flow of weapons into Iraq represent a credible trend. But if it is, he said it is more the result of talks between the Iraq and Iran, and does not involved the U.S.
“At this point, at least, I see it more as being part of the developing relationship between the Iraqi government and the Iranian government rather than a signal to us, necessarily,” said Gates, who is returning to the U.S. after a week-long trip to China, South Korea and Japan.
He added that if the Iranians are indeed slowing or stopping their shipments of armor-piercing explosives and roadside bombs into Iraq, then it clearly will reduce U.S. and Iraqi deaths.
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