Bruce Loudon, South Asia correspondent | November 20, 2007
PAKISTANI President Pervez Musharraf yesterday nailed down January 8 for elections while opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, in yet another political backflip, appeared to lay the groundwork for resuming power-sharing negotiations with the military ruler.
"Inshallah (God willing), the general elections would be held on January 8," a government statement quoted General Musharraf as telling supporters in Karachi amid rumours of a possible meeting between him and Ms Bhutto.
Both General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto were in the city at the same time following the departure from Pakistan of top US diplomat John Negroponte.
Mr Negroponte delivered a tough message to General Musharraf demanding an immediate end to the country's state of emergency and restoration of its constitution.
The meeting came as protests against General Musharraf's tactics spread to Britain, where demonstrators, including Jemima Khan, the former wife of detained politician Imran Khan, rallied outside Pakistan's High Commission to call for an end to the emergency rule.
Mr Negroponte strongly advised both General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto, whom he spoke to by phone, to shelve their differences and revive the power-sharing talks they have been having over the past few months.
In an interview with CNN, Ms Bhutto said she was awaiting General Musharraf's response to the discussions he'd had with Mr Negroponte.
She twice avoided criticising General Musharraf when asked to do so, telling the interviewer instead: "I know where you want to take me. Let's see first if he responds to Washington."
Ms Bhutto's response came amid rumours that General Musharraf was preparing to accede to Saudi requests he meet the prime minister he deposed in his 1999 coup, Nawaz Sharif.
General Musharraf had been scheduled to go to Riyadh last week for discussions with the Saudi royal family, which plays a key role in Pakistani affairs.
Because of his uncompromising line towards the regime, Mr Sharif enjoys widespread popularity and the Saudis are apparently keen to get him back to Pakistan to contest the election.
There was also intense speculation about two meetings Mr Negroponte held with General Musharraf's nominated successor as army chief of staff, General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani, the former head of the ISI spy agency.
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that the US military had developed a plan that calls for recruiting Pakistani tribal leaders to fight al-Qa'ida and the Taliban.
The US has used this tactic in Anbar province in Iraq, where the military has been able to enlist some local Sunni tribal leaders to back it in combating al-Qa'ida and other foreign fighters.
Citing unnamed US military officials, the Times said the plan was prepared by staff at the Special Operations Command, but has not been approved by command leaders.
However, several elements of the strategy have already been given the green light in principle by the Pentagon and its Pakistani partners. These include a $US350million ($391 million) proposal to train and equip the Pakistani Frontier Corps, a paramilitary force that has about 85,000 members coming mostly from border tribes.
The report came amid unrest in Swat, a scenic northwestern valley where pro-Taliban cleric Maulana Fazlullah is leading a campaign for the imposition of harsh Sharia law in the valley.