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US Concerned About Constitutional Changes in Pakistan - 2002-08-22

The United States is expressing concern that the changes to Pakistan's constitution unilaterally imposed by President Pervez Musharraf will impede efforts to return the country to democratic civilian rule. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage will meet the Pakistani leader Saturday and make U.S. misgivings about the moves clear.

U.S. officials say they still believe President Musharraf wants to move the country back to democracy. But they say they're concerned the constitutional changes will "make it more difficult" to build strong democratic institutions.

Mr. Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup in 1999, imposed nearly 30 amendments Wednesday that would, among other things, formalize a role for the military in running the country.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker says the moves give added importance to Pakistan's upcoming elections, which Mr. Musharraf has set for October 10, in line with a 1999 pledge to restore civilian government within three years. "We continue to believe that it is extremely important that Pakistan hold free and fair national and provincial elections in October as already announced," he said. "And we hope that following such elections. President Musharraf will take advantage of a new opportunity to develop a dialogue with elected civilian officials and consider the best way forward consistent with existing constitutional requirements."

The comments here were echoed by a White House spokesman travelling with President Bush in Oregon, who stressed the importance of Pakistan following "the path to democracy."

President Musharraf has drawn praise from the Bush administration for supporting the U.S.-led war on terrorism, and cracking down on Pakistani Muslim militants.

His constitutional changes have been widely criticized by human rights groups and opposition politicians in Pakistan as undemocratic. State Department spokesman Reeker said Deputy Secretary Armitage will be "clear and firm" in expressing U.S. concerns about the amendments when he sees Mr. Musharraf in Islamabad Saturday.

Mr. Armitage is on a regional swing through South Asia as part of a continuing effort by the Bush administration to tamp down tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir that threatened to flare into open hostilities in May.

U.S. officials say in addition to raising the constitutional changes with President Musharraf, Mr. Armitage will press him to make good on pledges to curb the infiltration of militants across the "line-of-control" into Indian Kashmir, and to close down extremist training camps.

The Armitage mission comes less than a month after a similar trip by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.