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Senior US senators to observe Pakistan election, say free vote is needed to fight extremism
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    WASHINGTON — Three senior U.S. senators traveling to Pakistan to observe next week’s elections said Friday that a fair vote is crucial to fighting extremism in South Asia.
    The delegation consists of Joseph Biden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; John Kerry, the Democrat who lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush; and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a leading voice on foreign affairs among Senate Republicans.
    The lawmakers told reporters ahead of their trip that their presence will send a message to Pakistan’s political leaders and people that the United States wants an election free of fraud, intimidation and vote tampering.
    ‘‘The stakes are very high here,’’ Kerry said. ‘‘I hope the government understands that merely clinging to power meets nobody’s objective, because it will wind up playing into the hands of radicals.’’
    Hagel said of the lawmakers’ visit: ‘‘I don’t think it goes unnoticed to the world, nor is it unnoticed by the people of Pakistan.’’
    ‘‘We expect to see free, fair and transparent elections,’’ he said.
    The Bush administration has been pushing Pakistan to fix what the top U.S. diplomat for the region has called ‘‘serious distortions’’ prior to Monday’s elections. The administration hopes that close scrutiny will encourage a more honest vote, and U.S. Embassy workers will fan out across the country as observers.
    Recent opinion surveys showed that support for President Pervez Musharraf’s ruling party is fading; the opposition, meanwhile, prepared for a landslide victory.
    Musharraf is warning that he will not tolerate protests after the elections, but opposition parties have threatened to gather in the streets if they believe Monday’s vote has been rigged.
    Although Musharraf is not up for re-election, he needs a commanding majority in the legislature to block any move to impeach him.
    Biden said in a statement that Pakistan’s ‘‘moderate majority must have a voice in the system. If not, there’s a real danger they will make common cause with extremists.’’
    The lawmakers also will visit India, Afghanistan and Turkey.
    Kerry said they plan to meet with Musharraf after the vote.
    Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1999, has been a vital U.S. ally in attempts to fight extremists along his country’s rugged border with Afghanistan. The Bush administration has promoted him as a moderate leader able to hold the nuclear-armed country together.
    But U.S. lawmakers have criticized the Bush administration for its steadfast support of Musharraf in spite of his suspension of the constitution and declaration of emergency rule last year, his purge of the judiciary and the arrests of thousands of opponents.
    Musharraf has said he declared emergency rule to prevent political chaos and to give authorities a freer hand against Islamic militants. Critics contend he was making a power grab before the old Supreme Court could rule on the legality of his continuation in power.

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