ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Pervez Musharraf and the Bush administration argued anew Wednesday as Washington continued to signal it is pulling away from him.

Fearing that Gen. Musharraf could fall from power soon, the White House is trying to distance itself from him and build connections to other Pakistanis. Increasingly, “the general view, I think, is that we’re in the end game,” said Marvin Weinbaum, who monitors U.S. policy toward Pakistan at Washington’s Middle East Institute.

Backing away from Musharraf requires delicate diplomacy that will fall this weekend to Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, who is to arrive here Friday. Negroponte is to reiterate Washington’s insistence that Musharraf must end his state of emergency before elections that are to be held by Jan. 9, diplomats said.

Washington also is thought likely to be quietly advancing a message to Pakistani leaders that it is ready to look beyond the Musharraf era and to work with the general’s successors. “I think that message already is being delivered through third parties,” Weinbaum said.

The U.S. Embassy here has stepped up meetings with opposition and pro-democracy leaders, military officers and other influential figures, diplomats said.

Negroponte’s message might be tempered by a division within the Bush administration, where some policy-makers argue that Musharraf could still survive and so must not be alienated, diplomats said. Also, they said, Negroponte must avoid appearing to interfere in Pakistani affairs.

Washington has been hoping Musharraf might come to a power-sharing arrangement with the most prominent civilian politician, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. But after authorities put Bhutto under house arrest Tuesday, for the second time, she called for Musharraf’s ouster and said negotiations are off.

As Washington presses Musharraf to end his crackdown, it is stopping short of using its most potent leverage – a cut in its huge aid deliveries here. The bulk of the U.S. aid to Pakistan goes to build its army’s ability to fight al-Qaida and other Islamic extremist groups. Washington wants to avoid interrupting that mission and wants to underscore to Pakistan’s military that it is a more reliable ally than in the past, when it readily has cut off aid over bilateral disputes.

The administration backed away from Musharraf after he declared Sunday he would hold elections under his emergency regime, which has seen thousands of political and pro-democracy activists arrested, independent judges dismissed and TV stations barred from broadcasting news. President Bush and his top aides objected in blunt terms. “Free and fair elections … can’t be held under a state of emergency,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino repeated Wednesday.

But Musharraf is not retreating. “Emergency is not meant to rig elections. Emergency is, in fact, meant to make sure that elections are held in a peaceful manner,” he told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Administration officials this week are stressing that Musharraf is not the fulcrum of U.S. policy in Pakistan. “This is not a personal matter about President Musharraf. This is about the Pakistani people,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in an ABC interview Sunday. Asked if Washington has stood by him for too long, she replied, “We’re standing by Pakistan and the Pakistani people.”

In Islamabad, U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson has reinforced Washington’s toughened message, notably to the army, which effectively is Pakistan’s ruling party. “The United States is urging your government not to throw away in weeks what it has taken years to achieve,” she told about 100 colonels, brigadiers and other officers at the National Defense University on Tuesday. She stressed that Pakistan’s economy will be damaged as foreign investors flee political uncertainty here.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

AP-NY-11-14-07 2008EST

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