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Full Name: Noman Zafar
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In Pakistan, U.S. Courts Leader of Opposition

Published: May 1, 2009
WASHINGTON "” As American confidence in the Pakistani government wanes, the Obama administration is reaching out more directly than before to Nawaz Sharif, the chief rival of Asif Ali Zardari, the Pakistani president, administration officials said Friday.
American officials have long held Mr. Sharif at arm's length because of his close ties to Islamists in Pakistan, but some Obama administration officials now say those ties could be useful in helping Mr. Zardari's government to confront the stiffening challenge by Taliban insurgents.
The move reflects the heightened concern in the Obama administration about the survivability of the Zardari government. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the United States Central Command, has said in private meetings in Washington that Pakistan's government is increasingly vulnerable, according to administration officials.
General Petraeus is among those expected to attend an all-day meeting on Saturday with senior administration officials to discuss the next steps in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in advance of high-level sessions next week in Washington, when Mr. Zardari and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan will meet with President Obama at the White House.
Washington has a bad history of trying to engineer domestic Pakistani politics, and no one in the administration is trying to broker an actual power-sharing agreement between Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif, administration officials say. But they say that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, have both urged Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif to look for ways to work together, seeking to capitalize on Mr. Sharif's appeal among the country's Islamist groups.
That could be a tall order, given the intense animosity between the men, not to mention the ambivalence that many American officials still have toward Mr. Sharif, a former prime minister who was overthrown in a military coup in 1999.
Some Pakistani officials said that members of Mr. Zardari's government already were reaching out to Mr. Sharif and that officials in Washington were exaggerating their influence over Pakistani politics. According to one Pakistani official, the government in Islamabad recently asked Mr. Sharif to rejoin the governing coalition. The two tried power-sharing last year, and that dissolved in acrimony only a week after Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari had banded together to force the resignation of President Pervez Musharraf.
Obama administration officials have been up front in expressing dissatisfaction with the response shown by Mr. Zardari's government to increasing attacks by Taliban fighters and insurgents with Al Qaeda in the country's tribal areas, and along its western border with Afghanistan. . During a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Obama said he was "gravely concerned" about the stability of the Pakistani government; on Friday, a Defense Department official described Mr. Zardari as "very, very weak."
The official said the administration wanted to broker an agreement not so much to buoy Mr. Zardari personally, but to accomplish what the administration believes Pakistan must do. "The idea here is to tie Sharif's popularity to things we think need to be done, like dealing with the militancy," said the official, who insisted on anonymity to speak more candidly about American differences with Pakistan's government.
Mr. Sharif, 59, represents the Pakistan Muslim League-N, a coalition that includes a number of Islamist groups. He was prime minister twice during the 1990s, and received hero status in Pakistan for ordering nuclear weapons tests in 1998.
Both Mr. Holbrooke and Mrs. Clinton have spoken with Mr. Sharif by telephone in the past month, and have urged Mr. Zardari's increasingly unpopular government to work closely with Mr. Sharif, administration officials said. "We told them they're facing a national challenge, and for that, you need bipartisanship," a senior administration official said. "The president's popularity is in the low double digits. Nawaz Sharif is at 83 percent. They need to band together against the militants."
Sir Mark Lyall Grant, director of political affairs at the British Foreign Office, was in Washington on Monday for talks with Mr. Holbrooke and Mrs. Clinton on Pakistan, according to American and European officials. The three discussed Mr. Sharif, but no conclusions were reached, a European official said. "There's certainly no agreement that Nawaz should become Zardari's prime minister," the official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity. He said the enmity between the two would make such a situation impossible. But he added: "We need people who have influence over the militancy in Pakistan to calm it down. Who's got influence? The army, yes. And Nawaz, yes."
The Obama administration's contemplation of a closer alliance with Mr. Sharif was first reported in The Wall Street Journal last week. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, said that Mr. Zardari was open to talking to Mr. Sharif. "The president and prime minister of Pakistan have been striving for national consensus and continue to be in close contact with the leadership of all political parties," Mr. Haqqani said.
The Bush administration struggled in 2007 to find a way to keep Mr. Musharraf in power amid a political crisis. The administration prodded him to share authority with his longtime rival, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, but those efforts ended after Mrs. Bhutto "” the wife of Mr. Zardari "” was shot and killed. The situation in Pakistan has become so dire, with the fragile government battling Taliban insurgents who have gotten close to Islamabad, that both American and Pakistani officials are looking hard to bring stability to the nuclear-armed nation.
"For the United States, there's no ambiguity about where the danger lies; it's in the people who are attacking the state," said Teresita C. Schaffer, a Pakistan expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. She said Mr. Sharif could broaden the appeal of the Zardari government, and his ties to Islamist militants give him added heft right now. "So the U.S. would dearly love to see both of those parties on the same page."
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
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