The U.S. has a puzzle to crack in Pakistan.
The administration of President George W. Bush wants to ensure military pressure is kept up on militants in the lawless tribal areas, but U.S. support for President Pervez Musharraf risks deepening anti-American sentiment among a public already fuming over Islamabad's role in the war on terror.
Despite Washington's denials of any meddling in Pakistani politics, influential commentators and average citizens are convinced it is propping up the unpopular former army chief to sustain the fight against al-Qaida, even as it calls for more democracy.
"I want to ask President Bush, will he allow any other country to intervene in the ongoing U.S. election?" said Ibrar Christi, 31-year-old car dealer in Lahore. "Now America wants our political parties to cooperate with Musharraf. Why? Just because he is their yes man? We have voted against Musharraf and his policies."
Bush called Musharraf shortly after the Feb. 18 election and the White House has also praised him for working hard in the counterterrorism fight.
That irked many Pakistanis who feel they have sent a loud message to Musharraf _ and by extension the U.S. _ with a resounding defeat of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, which won just 15 percent of National Assembly seats.
The victors _ the Pakistan People's Party of slain former leader Benazir Bhutto and the Pakistan Muslim League-N of another ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif _ have both pushed for an end to military rule since Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup. But the U.S. cannot be certain they will press the fight against al-Qaida and Taliban militants as hard as Musharraf has.
"There is an anguish about the statements from the White House," said Asma Jehangir, head of the nongovernment Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "They are again giving a breath of life to the old establishment, which is what the people wanted to change."
But Washington is increasingly weighing its words.
In testimony Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte made scant mention of Musharraf _ less than four months after describing him as "indispensable" to the fight against extremism _ and stressed the U.S. is supporting Pakistan's people as they choose their leaders.
Yet when pressed, Negroponte said, "We look forward to continuing to work with him."
Bush has relied heavily on Musharraf since U.S. forces deployed to neighboring Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. Musharraf, who ended Pakistan's support of the Taliban regime, has sent about 100,000 troops along the Afghan border, where Osama bin Laden is thought to hide.
But many here feel the strategy has backfired on Pakistan.
Militants have grabbed control of tracts of the country's northwest and launched dozens of suicide attacks. More than 2,500 people have died in militant-related violence in the past eight months alone, according to figures compiled by The Associated Press from police and government and military officials.
As the bloodshed has worsened, Musharraf has been accused of embroiling Pakistan in a proxy war in return for about US$10 billion in U.S. aid, most of which goes to Pakistan's military.
In a poll last month, only 9 percent of respondents said Pakistan should cooperate with the U.S. in the war on terror. The poll of 3,845 adults by the U.S. group, the International Republican Institute, had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
"They (the U.S.) have destroyed Afghanistan and our tribal area," said Ali Khan, a 31-year-old mini taxi driver, although U.S. forces are still forbidden from conducting military operations on Pakistani soil.
Some likely leaders in the coalition government the PPP and Sharif's party are expected to form have called for a halt to military operations and for negotiations with militants _ an approach which has failed in the past.
When Bhutto's widower Asif Ali Zardari visited the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, just two days after the election, it sparked accusations that the U.S. was trying to rescue Musharraf.
"Ambassadors ... are openly giving dictation when the fact is that the people of Pakistan ... do not want to see either Pervez Musharraf or his allied politicians in power at any cost," the conservative daily Nawa-i-Waqt said, echoing editorials in many newspapers.
But Washington denies applying diplomatic pressure, and both parties also deny being pressed.
A Sharif aide, Sen. Ishaq Dar, dispelled the notion U.S. Ambassador Anne W. Patterson was lobbying for Musharraf.
"Do you expect from (Sharif) to concede to any lobbying in favor of that man?" Dar said.
Reflecting the diplomatic sensitivities, U.S. officials say it will be up to Pakistan's parliament whether it wants to work with the president.
And the Bush administration's support for Musharraf is likely to have its limits _ particularly if a clash between the president and the new civilian government further destabilizes Pakistan in the months ahead.
"They may hope for a small transition to the election of a new president by the new Parliament. I doubt they will continue to prop him up," said Robert Oakley, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan between 1988-92.
In a possible harbinger of change, U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat, and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Chuck Hagel, Republicans, who each visited Pakistan last week, said afterward they think Musharraf will quietly step down from his position _ despite his stated intention to serve his five-year term.
"I think he will go gently into the good night," Biden said.
Associated Press reporters Asif Shahzad in Lahore and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.
The U.S. has a puzzle to crack in Pakistan.