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U.S. meets with Pakistanis opposed to Musharraf

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Signaling a break with Washington’s longtime dependence on President Pervez Musharraf as the overriding political force in Pakistan, two senior U.S. envoys held talks Tuesday with foes of the former general on a day that the new guard moved to assert its claim to power.

The round of discussions by Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte and Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Richard Boucher coincided with the swearing in of Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yusaf Raza Gillani, completing a transition to civilian rule.

Gillani now leads a ruling coalition solidly arrayed against Musharraf, who administered him the oath of office. In a calculated snub of the president, the ceremony was boycotted by most lawmakers and leaders from Gillani’s party, that of assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto.

Gillani, confirmed by the newly elected National Assembly a day earlier, had challenged Musharraf immediately by ordering the release from house arrest of judges fired and detained by the Pakistani president last year.

Although the Bush administration has said it looks forward to working with the new government, Musharraf’s perilous position is a source of some anxiety in Washington. Pakistan’s internal stability is regarded as key to the safety of its nuclear arsenal and a crucial factor in the confrontation with militants ensconced in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

Musharraf has been a close U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida, but the new ruling coalition has indicated that the government probably will seek negotiations with militant groups.

Negroponte and Boucher met with Musharraf, as visiting U.S. officials always have done, but the roster of consultations was dominated by the new set of players.

The envoys held talks with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party now rules in concert with Bhutto’s. They also met with Gillani, who received a call from President Bush shortly after his swearing-in, and with Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, who took over leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party after she was assassinated Dec. 27.

In addition, the U.S. diplomats conferred with Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who became army chief when Musharraf finally relinquished the post in late November.

Negroponte and Boucher made no public comment. But Sharif told journalists that he had informed the visiting Americans that Musharraf was not regarded as a legitimate leader.


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