WASHINGTON - The United States' second-ranking diplomat signaled yesterday that the Bush administration is distancing itself from President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan after opposition victories in that country's elections last week.
Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte told senators that the United States is supporting Pakistan's people as they choose their leaders after the parliamentary elections. But during his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he made scant mention of Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and remains in office on the grounds of a disputed election last year.
Senior Bush administration officials, including Negroponte, have previously underlined their view that Musharraf has been essential to the US-led fight against extremists along Pakistan's rugged border with Afghanistan.
Negroponte testified that "Pakistan has been indispensable" to that fight and said the United States looks "forward to working with the leaders who emerge" from a new government.
When pressed by a lawmaker about whether the United States would continue to back Musharraf, Negroponte said, "Musharraf is still the president of his country, and we look forward to continuing to work with him."
US lawmakers and Pakistani opposition leaders have criticized the Bush administration for its steadfast support of the former army general despite his crackdown on the opposition, judiciary, and media. The Bush administration promoted Musharraf as a moderate leader.
Musharraf has faced intense criticism since he declared a state of emergency in November and purged the Supreme Court before it could rule on the disputed legality of his reelection as president a month earlier.
Senator Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, said the United States should make it clear to Pakistan's people that US interests lie "not in supporting a particular leader or party, but in democracy, . . . and the fight against violence."