WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Members of Congress on Tuesday called on the Bush administration to increase pressure on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to ensure free and fair elections in his nation.
Street vendors stand under an election billboard of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi.
The United States has sent "a mixed and muddled message" to Pakistan about the importance of a free election and transparent counting of the votes, said Rep. John Tierney, D-Massachusetts.
Tierney on Tuesday spoke to Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher at a House subcommittee meeting to discuss the February 18 elections.
"If we care about protecting our soldiers in Afghanistan from escalating cross-border attacks, then we have an absolutely crucial interest in ensuring that the government in Pakistan has the popular mandate to confront extremism and terrorism within its borders," he said.
The parliamentary elections, which are considered crucial to restoring democracy to Pakistan, were originally set for January 8. But they were delayed because of the unrest after the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Boucher defended the role the United States has played in promoting the elections.
"We continue to work very hard to try to ensure an election that is as free and fair as possible, working with a lot of people, domestic and foreign," Boucher said. "I think it is time for everybody to work as hard as they can to try to make this a good election. And that's where we are putting most of our energy right now."
When challenged on how Pakistan could have a "good election" after Musharraf had arrested judges, packed the high court and restricted the media, Boucher said, "On a scale from terrible to great, it [the election] will be somewhere in the middle."
Tierney and other members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee panel said they are worried that if the election doesn't inspire confidence inside Pakistan, the country might face post-election violence similar to what is playing out now in Kenya.
"What happened in Kenya strikes me as very likely to happen in Pakistan, and I don't know how we respond to it," said Rep. Chris Shays, R-Connecticut.
Boucher replied that "We will know in a few weeks whether we will have violence, how good an election we will have."
"Do we have plans if that happens?" asked Shays.
"We've looked at various scenarios," answered Boucher. "But until you see the actual situation, it is very hard to decide precisely how to deal with it."
Tierney said that in a closed-door session of the House Intelligence Committee set for later in the day, he will ask Boucher what contingencies the United States has in place should a disputed election plunge the country into violence.
After the hearing, Tierney told CNN, "The only question is how tainted will this election be."
"This administration seems content just to boot the ball down the road and deal with the aftermath, and I think that is a disturbing thing," he said. E-mail to a friend
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