ISLAMABAD, Apr 5 (Reuters) During a visit to Pakistan today the State Department's new overseer of U S relations in South Asia stressed Washington's interest in seeing fair elections next year and an eventual return to civilian rule.
Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, said President Pervez Musharraf's retention of his role as army chief was an important issue for both the Pakistani people and the United States.
''We firmly believe in civilian rule, in civilian control of the military, but how this particular issue is going to be addressed... I think we'll just have to see,'' Boucher told a newsconference following a meeting with Musharraf.
After coming to power in a coup seven years ago, General Musharraf was treated as a virtual pariah by the United States, until his cooperation in the war on terrorism was needed following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
Since then he has become a firm ally, and in a visit to Islamabad last month, President George W Bush said he was assured of Musharraf's commitment to developing democracy in Pakistan, and noted several characteristics of a flourishing democracy including Pakistan's lively media.
Boucher singled out for special mention a meeting with Qazi Muhammad Farooq, Pakistan's new chairman of the Election Commission.
''I was heartened to hear that he was going to make the elections free and fair... and, of course we'll support him, as he tries to do that, in any way we can,'' Boucher told reporters at the US embassy in Islamabad.
Farooq, a retired judge, was appointed in March, a month after Boucher's own appointment.
The US official also said he met the leader of the senate, speaker of the lower house in Pakistan's National Assembly, and leaders of political parties with an eye to supporting the elections next year.
''Our interest is to see an overall process towards democracy, an overall process for the Pakistani people to be allowed to choose their own leaders, an overall process toward a more moderate, modern, but still Muslim society,'' Boucher said.
Musharraf is widely expected to be voted in as president for another term by legislators in the assemblies that emerge from the elections in 2007, but constitutionally he is also expected to take off his uniform that year.
Boucher was questioned over Washington's decision to let India have access to US nuclear technology, including reactors, for its civilian power programme, while denying Pakistan a similar accord.
He said the agreement would bring more of India's nuclear plants under the scrutiny, and that the United States would not have made such an offer if there was any possibility of it aiding a country's weapons programme.
He reiterated a US desire to help Pakistan meet its energy needs through non-nuclear sources, such as coal and gas.
Boucher visited Afghanistan before coming to Islamabad, and he was expected to go to New Delhi for talks tomorrow.
REUTERS SBJ BS2149