By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has urged embattled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to explore ways of cooperating politically with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a diplomat said on Thursday.
The effort to encourage a political deal, first reported by The New York Times, appears aimed at shoring up Musharraf's eroding domestic support and at ensuring Pakistan's continued cooperation with the United States in the war on terrorism.
The strategy carries risks for Washington, which could be seen as meddling in Pakistan's internal affairs, and for Bhutto, who could taint herself by allying with Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup eight years ago.
The Pakistani president, who is preparing to seek a second term in office, has seen his popularity plunge since his failed attempt to oust Pakistan's chief justice this year and he faces a deepening political crisis at home.
Since early July, more than 300 people in Pakistan have been killed in bomb attacks, in clashes with militants and in an army assault on Islamabad's Red Mosque to crush a Taliban-style movement.
Musharraf has been regarded by the United States as a vital ally since his decision after the September 11 attacks on the United States to cooperate with Washington in combating al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan.
The diplomat, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad met Bhutto recently and that the United States was encouraging Musharraf and Bhutto to "look at ways to cooperate politically."
In its report, The New York Times stated the matter more baldly, saying the Bush administration was struggling to find a way to keep Musharraf in power and was quietly prodding him to "share authority" with Bhutto.
In an interview, Bhutto said that she had met Khalilzad in a private capacity and denied the United States was explicitly pushing her to forge a power-sharing deal with Musharraf.
"They have certainly not come up and said this is what we want you to do," she told Reuters.
"From my perspective, the issue is not working out a power-sharing arrangement and distributing power," she added. "From my perspective, this is about saving Pakistan from chaos, it's about saving Pakistan from dictatorship, and it's about saving the Pakistani people from the misery that comes when there is conflict and that leads to poverty and unemployment."
"That's why we are engaged in these negotiations (with Musharraf). To see whether we can come to an understanding that facilitates democracy in -- and the stability of -- Pakistan," she said.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, having met the Pakistani leadership during a two-day visit to Islamabad, declined to respond when asked if the United States was mediating between Musharraf and Bhutto.
He said the Pakistani people should choose their next government in elections and he had been encouraging political leaders to help ensure the vote is fair.
"I've also encouraged them to look at what can be done to strengthen the moderate centre of Pakistani politics," Boucher told reporters in Islamabad. "The more that those tendencies can be brought forward and joined, the more solid base there is to deal with the serious problem of extremism."
RISKS FOR BHUTTO
Analysts said a power-sharing deal might broaden Musharraf's political base and improve his popularity but carried risks for Bhutto.
"The biggest risk is that by doing a deal in which she throws her support to a military dictator she will lose her credibility as an independent opposition politician," said Teresita Schaffer, a Pakistan expert at the CSIS think tank.
The United States has become increasingly frustrated that Musharraf has not done enough to combat Taliban militants on his side of the largely lawless border with Afghanistan as well as worried about his political standing.
In a sign of U.S. concern, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte is likely to visit Pakistan in September in his second trip to the country this year, the U.S. official said.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack declined to comment on whether Khalilzad had met Bhutto but he stressed that the Bush administration had talked to "all parties."
(Additional reporting by Robert Birsel in Islamabad and JoAnne Allen in Washington)Reuters (IDS)