Bush contacts Musharaff

WASHINGTON – President Bush, personally intervening in the political crisis in Pakistan, told President Pervez Musharaff yesterday he must hold parliamentary elections soon and step down as army leader.

“You can’t be the president and the head of the military at the same time,” Bush said, describing a 20-minute telephone call with Musharraf. “I had a very frank discussion with him.”

It was Bush’s first contact with Musharraf since he declared emergency rule on Saturday and granted sweeping powers to authorities to crush political dissent.

Bush revealed the call to Musharraf during an appearance with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, at George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Va.

For several days, the White House has faced questions about why Bush was taking a relatively soft line on the crackdown and had not spoken directly to Musharraf, whom Bush has called a friend he trusts.

“My message was that we believe strongly in elections and that you ought to have elections soon and you need to take off your uniform,” Bush said.

Sarkozy agreed with Bush on the need “to have elections as quickly as possible” in Pakistan.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush placed the phone call from the Oval Office around 11:15 a.m. EST. “President Musharraf listened carefully and heard what the president had to say,” Perino said.

The Bush administration has been careful not to go too far in rebuking a terrorism-fighting ally. By contrast, the U.S. took a hard line when Myanmar’s military rulers cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in September.

“There is a difference,” Bush said. “Pakistan has been on the path to democracy. Burma hasn’t been on the path to democracy. It requires different tactics to achieve the common objective.”

On Capitol Hill, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte called Musharraf an “indispensable” ally in the U.S.-led fight against terrorism and said that “partnership with Pakistan and its people is the only option.”

“No country has done more in terms of inflicting damage and punishment on the Taliban and the al-Qaida since 9-11,” Negroponte said. “Their record is quite impressive.”

Negroponte also told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that administration officials “strongly disagree” with Musharraf’s moves against his political opponents and counseled Musharraf against emergency rule.

The administration is reviewing its aid to Pakistan. Musharraf has said his decisions to suspend the constitution and oust its top judge were necessary to prevent a takeover by Islamic extremists.

Negroponte said he is hoping the U.S. will not have to punish Pakistan.

“I think that the longer the situation goes on in its present form, the more difficult it’s going to become,” he said. “That’s why we believe this state of emergency end absolutely as soon as possible.”

Many lawmakers are skeptical. They say the U.S. should be more serious about penalizing Pakistan and that Musharraf should not be so readily praised.

“Our foreign policy should not be faith-based,” said Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., who heads the subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia.