WASHINGTON President Bush on Monday exhorted Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to hold elections and relinquish his army post "as soon as possible." He said he instructed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to deliver that message in a telephone call with Musharraf.
Bush made his comments in the Oval Office of the White House after a meeting with Turkey's visiting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was Bush's first public comment on the political crisis in Pakistan since Musharraf imposed a state of emergency over the weekend.
"Our hope is that he will restore democracy as quickly as possible," Bush said.
The president would not discuss what action he might take for example, how much U.S. aid to Pakistan would be cut if Musharraf ignores his request.
"It's a hypothetical," he said. "I certainly hope he does take my advice."
But the president made a point of praising Pakistan's cooperation in the war on terror, and seemed resigned that, as a result, there is little concrete action he can take to influence Musharraf's behavior.
"President Musharraf has been a strong fighter against extremists and radicals," Bush said. "All we can do is continue to work with the president ... to make abundantly clear the position of the United States."
Erdogan also took the opportunity to publicly call for Musharraf to change course and hold elections as promised.
"It is also our desire to see a return to democracy in the shortest time possible," the Turkish leader said. "The way out is never through extremism."
Rice telephoned Musharraf from her plane as she was returning to Washington from the Middle East. She made it clear that the United States was deeply disappointed in the weekend move and wanted Musharraf to rescind the decision as well as hold elections as scheduled in January.
The conversation was believed to be the highest-level U.S. contact with Musharraf since Oct. 31 when Rice unsuccessfully lobbied the Pakistani leader not to declare a state of emergency or face unspecified consequences, according to the official.
Earlier Monday, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, was among a group of foreign diplomats to meet with Musharraf, who outlined his reasoning behind the step and reiterated his intention to step down as the country's military chief and return to civilian rule, the official said, adding that Washington wanted to see action on those pledges.
The Bush administration is currently reviewing U.S. assistance to Pakistan in light of the developments, including a crackdown on the opposition and independent media. Such aid has amounted to $9.6 billion dollars since 2001. That does not include another $800 million that the administration is requesting from Congress for Pakistan for the current budget year.
But Rice and other top administration national security aides have said that U.S. financial aid to Pakistan must be reviewed in light of the latest developments but that it's unlikely that money for the war on terrorism would be at risk.
For its part, the Pentagon said it was postponing a meeting scheduled for this week in Islamabad between senior U.S. and Pakistani defense officials.
Eric Edelman, defense undersecretary for policy issues, was planning to travel to Pakistan for the meeting, but "it was thought wise to postpone this meeting until such time that all the parties can focus on the very important issues at hand," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that both he and Rice suggested the administration doesn't want to disrupt its partnership with Pakistan in fighting al-Qaida and other militants a relationship that dates back to the Sept. 11 attacks.
"We are reviewing all of our assistance programs, although we are mindful not to do anything that would undermine ongoing counterterrorism efforts," said Gates, who is on a visit to China.
State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said a review of "the broad spectrum of assistance that we give to Pakistan" was under way, but declined to comment on whether Musharraf's actions had triggered statutory aid suspensions.
Laws governing the distribution of U.S. foreign aid are clear as they apply to coups d'etat and other unconstitutional steps taken to remove a democratically elected government but are less precise about the imposition of states of emergency and martial law, officials said.
At the same time, Casey noted that U.S.-Pakistani ties would suffer unless Musharraf rescinds the state of emergency.
"It is difficult to see how our relations would remain the same if this step is not, in fact, reversed," he said. "It is our hope that this decision will be reversed in short order."
Over the weekend, Musharraf announced he had suspended his country's constitution, ousted the country's top judge and deployed troops to fight what he called rising Islamic extremism.In Pakistan on Monday, legions of baton-wielding police clashed with lawyers to squash protests against Musharraf, while international pressure mounted against the imposition of emergency powers that have led to more than 1,500 arrests.
AP Diplomatic Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this story from Ramallah, West Bank.