Democratic presidential contender Sen. Barack Obama said it is critical for Pakistan to be a constructive ally in fighting al-Qaida, a week after threatening military action if President Musharraf did not act.
Obama and his spokesman offered measured criticism of the Bush administration's actions and policies on Pakistan. The candidate twice declined an opportunity to explain the difference between his proposals and the White House's, but expressed sympathy for Musharraf, who faces a growing militant backlash in his Muslim nation.
''President Musharraf has a very difficult job, and it is important that we are a constructive ally with them in dealing with al-Qaida,'' Obama said Wednesday.
Obama did not repeat the most incendiary line from his foreign policy speech last Wednesday, when he promised: ''If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.''
That pledge set off ripples of resentment in the relationship between Washington and Islamabad, prompting Pakistani officials to warn against U.S. incursions into their country.
Tariq Azim, Pakistan's minister of state for information, said talk from the United States about the possibility of U.S. military action against al-Qaida in Pakistan ''has set alarm bells ringing and has upset the Pakistani public.''
Azim cited Obama as an example of someone who had made such comments and said Obama's recent remarks were one reason the government was debating whether to declare a state of emergency.
A call to Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs for comment was not immediately returned Wednesday night.
President Bush was vague on Monday when asked whether he would consult with Pakistan before chasing al-Qaida leaders into Pakistan. Last year, he offered a clearer answer, saying he could not send thousands of troops into Pakistan to search for Osama bin Laden without an invitation from the government. ''Pakistan's a sovereign nation,'' Bush said then.
Asked Wednesday whether there was any difference now between his position and the Bush administration, Obama twice sidestepped the question, once saying he did not know Bush's stance and then saying he did not speak for the White House.
Obama repeated his insistence that, ''We can't send millions and millions of dollars to Pakistan for military aid, and be a constant ally to them, and yet not see more aggressive action in dealing with al-Qaida.''
Bush recently tried to ensure just that, signing into law a measure that ties U.S. aid to Pakistan to progress in combating militants. Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said the senator's broader criticism is that Bush ''has not asked more of the Pakistanis.''
The closest Obama came to directly criticizing the Bush administration on the matter was to cite a report in The New York Times that said then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had called off a raid against al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan in 2005, despite having actionable intelligence.
Gibbs went a step further than the candidate in a subsequent telephone interview, saying that the aborted raid showed ''the White House actually doesn't have a policy'' on Pakistan.
''The American public needs to understand these issues because part of what's at stake in this next, upcoming foreign policy debate is the need to shift resources out of Iraq, in part to attend to these problems,'' Obama said.
''If the American people don't understand that this is where the real threat is, that we're on the wrong battlefield right now, then we may get confused and elect a president who continues down the wrong road instead of the one that's really going to make a difference in terms of our security.''
In Islamabad, Azim said Musharraf's government is not ruling out imposing emergency because of ''external and internal threats'' to Pakistan and deteriorating law and order in the volatile northwest near the Afghan border. He referred to recent military action against militants in northwestern border areas that he said had resulted in the deaths of many soldiers.