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US Official Defends Aid to Pakistan

A senior U.S. State Department official predicts elections in Pakistan scheduled for January 8 will not be perfect, but he says it will be an important step in the country's transition to democracy. At a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill, the official defended U.S. aid to Pakistan, a key ally in the war on terror. VOA's Deborah Tate reports.

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher offered his prediction about upcoming parliamentary elections in Pakistan. "It is not going to be perfect," he said.

Opposition groups in Pakistan believe the elections will not be fair, saying election authorities, the judiciary and local officials support those in President Musharraf's party.

But in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary Boucher remained optimistic. "If we keep working at it, and they keep working at it, and they do what they pledge, with President Musharaff and the political party leaders have pledged, they can have an election that really does reflect the choices made by the people of Pakistan.," he said.

The hearing was disrupted by a protester who took issue with Boucher's assessment. "How can the U.S. believe Musharraf will allow free and fair elections in Pakistan? Musharraf is a dictator!"

The protester was escorted out of the room.

Boucher said he believes that President Musharraf will lift the state of emergency on December 16 as he has pledged, saying the Pakistani leader made good on his vow to remove his military uniform and serve as civilian president.

But some Senate Democrats challenged the Bush administration's support for Musharraf and questioned the 10 billion dollars in U.S. assistance given to Pakistan since 2001.

"In spite of that $10 billion, al Qaida and the Taliban have a safe-haven in the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) region, Osama bin Laden is still on the loose in the region, anti-Americanism remains high, and Pakistan's president has repeatedly exercised the powers of a dictator. Do we dare call our policies in that respect a success?," said Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat.

Boucher defended the aid, saying that country's success as a nation is essential to U.S. security. And he said the United States has played a positive role in moving Pakistan toward democratic change:

"Part of the reason why we are in a period of transition to democracy right now, part of the reason why there are political leaders in Pakistan contesting elections that will be held in a month, part of the reason why the state of emergency once imposed is going to be lifted soon is because of the role of the United States," he said.

Much of the U.S. aid to Pakistan since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States has been spent to reimburse Islamabad for its assistance in the war on terrorism.

After President Musharraf imposed the state of emergency on November 3, the State Department began a review of U.S. assistance.

Boucher said $200 million in U.S. aid previously dispensed by the Pakistani treasury would now be spent directly by U.S. agencies for health and education programs.