WASHINGTON – With the United States and Pakistan united in a war against terrorism, the suggestion Friday that the United States once threatened to bomb the Pakistanis “back to the Stone Age” landed like a diplomatic bombshell.

Acting swiftly to defuse concern over any such threat, the White House dismissed it as a misunderstanding, the former deputy secretary of state who allegedly issued the threat denied ever using such incendiary words, and President Bush attempted to smooth it over with a joke.

Yet Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who made the alleged U.S. threat public in a television interview airing this weekend, refused to confirm or deny the claim during a news conference with Bush on Friday. Musharraf cited his vow of silence to an American book publisher that plans to release his memoirs Monday.

“I am launching my book on the 25th and I am honor-bound to Simon & Schuster not to comment on the book before that day,” Musharraf said to laughter in the East Room of the White House.

“In other words,” Bush interjected, “Buy the book,’ is what he’s saying.” And afterward, as the two stood shaking hands for photographers, Bush repeated his advice: “Buy the book.”

The controversy stems from an alleged threat that may or may not be discussed in Musharraf’s memoir, “In the Line of Fire.”

“60 Minutes,” the CBS weekly newsmagazine, will air an interview with Musharraf on Sunday – as part of the publisher’s book promotion. In that interview, according to CBS, Musharraf recounts what his intelligence director told him of a conversation with Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“The intelligence director told me that (Armitage) said, “Be prepared to be bombed. Be prepared to go back to the Stone Age,”‘ Musharraf told CBS.

Armitage has acknowledged delivering a strong message to Pakistan – but not that strong.

“There was no military threat, and I was not authorized to do so,” Armitage told The Associated Press. “It did not happen,” he said, adding that he asked the State Department on Friday to read him a cable of his conversation with the intelligence chief. “There was, in no way, that threat,” he said, allowing that “it was a strong, straightforward conversation.”

The White House maintained that the administration was delivering a “you’re with us or you’re against us” message to Pakistan, which had supported the Taliban before Sept. 11 and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan to topple the fundamentalist regime and hunt down the al-Qaida leaders it was harboring.

“U.S. policy was not to issue bombing threats,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said. “U.S. policy was to say to President Musharraf, “You need to make a choice.’ . . . At the outset of the war in Afghanistan, the president did make a statement to President Musharraf: “You’re going to be with us or you’re going to be against us.”‘

Bush maintained that he hadn’t heard of the alleged Armitage threat until Friday.

“The first I heard of this was when I read it in the newspaper today,” Bush said. “You know, I was – I guess I was taken aback by the harshness of the words.”

Musharraf’s publisher remained as mum as the author about the “Stone Age” remark, declining to say whether it is detailed in the forthcoming book.

“He is honor-bound not to speak about the book,” said Carisa Hays, vice president and director of publicity at Simon & Schuster, allowing that the publisher arranged the “60 Minutes” interview of Musharraf as the first televised promotion for the book.

Musharraf has been a reliable partner, Bush maintained. “All I can tell you is that, shortly after 9/11, Secretary Colin Powell came in and said, “President Musharraf understands the stakes and he wants to join and help root out an enemy that has come and killed 3,000 of our citizens,”‘ Bush said.

Musharraf, addressing students and faculty at George Washington University, later said: “We joined the war on terror not really for the world as much as for ourselves. . . . We are on board with the free world to fight terrorism.”

Maintaining that Americans tend to not consider issues from other countries’ perspectives, Musharraf suggested the United States could achieve greater success on the world stage if it did. “You must, first of all, come, put your eyes in mine, into the environment of Pakistan or, for that matter, another country.”

Musharraf and Bush say they remain united, with the two planning to join Afghan President Hamid Karzai over dinner at the White House on Wednesday.

They still face delicate issues. As the nascent Afghan government struggles to suppress a resurgent Taliban within its borders, Karzai has complained that Pakistan is not doing enough to control Taliban and al-Qaida operatives based within a lawless border region in Pakistan.

Musharraf insisted he is approaching the problem with a “holistic” approach that includes military surveillance in the region, economic incentives for tribal leaders who want to rebuild their provinces and a “political” solution – a treaty he has signed with tribal elders.

Musharraf is confronting criticism that he has made an accommodation with the Taliban in the region: “This treaty is not to deal with the Taliban,” Musharraf said Friday. “It is actually to fight the Taliban.”

The treaty with tribal leaders in North Waziristan has “three bottom lines,” Musharraf said: “No al-Qaida activity in our tribal agencies or across the border in Afghanistan. . . . No Taliban activity in our tribal agencies or across in Afghanistan. . . . No Talibanization.”

Bush, standing alongside Musharraf in the East Room on Friday, endorsed this plan, and the two presidents promised a continuing relationship.

“When the president looks me in the eye and says, “The tribal deal is intended to reject the Talibanization of the people, and that there won’t be a Taliban and won’t be al-Qaida,’ I believe him, you know?” Bush said.

“A relationship is trust and confidence,” Musharraf noted. “If we don’t have that trust and confidence in each other, and we think that we are bluffing each other – I don’t think that’s a good way of moving forward.”

(Richard Clough of the Chicago Tribune’s Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BUSH PAKISTAN

GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): PAKISTAN

AP-NY-09-22-06 1933EDT

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