Pakistan envoys seek U.S. trust, trade and patience

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Envoys of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf dismissed criticism of his political crackdown and appealed on Monday to the United States to back their country as an ally against Islamic extremism.

The Musharraf supporters, a ruling party lawmaker and ministers of his caretaker government, painted an image of normality back home in meetings with lawmakers, Bush administration officials and the media.

Pakistan is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections on January 8, two months after Musharraf declared emergency rule and detained more than 5,000 activists, judges and lawyers. He has promised to lift emergency rule on December 16, but some judges and lawyers remain under house arrest.

Nasim Ashraf, chairman of the National Commission for Human Development, stressed the word “trust” when asked what his mission wanted from Washington, which harshly criticized Musharraf for imposing emergency rule on November 3.

“We are truly partners and have sacrificed blood and our lives together,” he said in an interview in which he also appealed for improved trade opportunities.

Ashraf said Pakistan seeks a free trade agreement with the United States and wants relief from quotas that limit trade in textiles, the country’s most important export.

To battle Islamic extremists in border areas with Afghanistan, Ashraf said his country needed U.S. surveillance equipment, helicopters and shared intelligence.

Defending a decision by Pakistan’s Election Commission on Monday to bar former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from the election, Ashraf said the ruling was made on legal grounds and was not political.

“The election process is open to all,” he said, noting that the constitution bars convicted people from running for parliament. Sharif was convicted on a corruption charge, but hid aides have blamed Musharraf for the commission ruling.

“We have to follow certain rules and they apply to everybody across the board. There are no favorites and there are no black sheep,” said Ashraf.

Muhammad Ali Saif, minister of tourism and youth affairs in the caretaker government, said both Sharif and fellow opposition leader Benazir Bhutto were covered by a law barring candidates from serving three terms as prime minister. The rule could be amended with two-thirds support in parliament.

“If they want to change that after the elections, the president is open to that,” said Ashraf.

Kashmala Tariq, a lawyer and ruling party lawmaker, said she would ask U.S. counterparts to make it easier for Pakistani students to get visas for the United States — a process that has become onerous since the September 11 attacks.

She acknowledged U.S. concerns about terrorism, but said Pakistan needed Americans to “understand our situation, to bear with us because we are going through difficult times.”

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