WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is paying increased attention to Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif, who has emerged as the "most popular politician" in Pakistan as President Asif Ali Zardari "appears to flounder", The Washington Times said Thursday. Citing US and Pakistani analysts, the conservative newspaper said the former prime minister's rise is due in part to discontent with President Zardari. Nawaz Sharif "appears to be the man of the moment," Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, was quoted as saying by The Washington Times correspondent, who profiled him in a dispatch from Lashore. The "United States has realized that he enjoys broad-based support in Pakistan" and expects Mr. Sharif to play an effective role in fight against terrorism, he said. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, met with Sharif last week in Islamabad. Sharif discussed the security situation and reportedly urged the Obama administration to change its policy regarding drone attacks in Pakistani territory. A State Department official in Washington said the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad "has been in contact" with Sharif as an "important political figure" in Pakistan. "That in no way should suggest, however, that we are backing him or 'working closely' with him," said the official, who asked not to be named. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA expert on South Asia who led the Obama administration's recent review of U.S. policy toward Pakistan and Afghanistan, said the U.S. was dealing with Sharif because "there's nobody else out there. Zardari has the political strength, but it seems to be evaporating ... There is a recognition that [Mr. Sharif] may well be the next leader. Therefore, you have to deal with him." Riedel, who was on the White House National Security Council and dealt with Sharif when the latter was prime minister a decade ago, said Sharif went along with then-Pakistani army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf in staging an offensive in the disputed territory of Kashmir and signed off on tests of nuclear weapons. (But Nawaz Sharif has publicly maintained that he was not taken into confidence) "He is much more moderate then he used to be," retired Gen. Talat Masood, a veteran political analyst, told The Washington Times. "He has become [a] more mature, enlightened and seasoned politician. He has improved a lot. His support is growing. He wants to play the role of statesman." Gen. Masood said Nawaz Sharif wants good relations with the United States, India and rest of the world. A senior Pakistani official told The Washington Times: "It's a good thing that U.S. officials are interacting with other Pakistani leaders." He noted that Bush administration officials also met with Sharif. Meanwhile, noted American columnist David Ignatius, writing in The Washington Post Thursday, described the recent political crisis in Pakistan, which could have triggered a military coup, as a "story of political brinkmanship and, ultimately, of a settlement brokered by the Obama administration". "At stake was the survival of Pakistani democracy. Allies of President Asif Ali Zardari attempted to cripple his political rival, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The opposition leader took to the streets in response, joining a 'long march' to Islamabad to demand the reinstatement of Pakistan's deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. The march threatened a violent street battle that could have forced Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff, to intervene," he wrote. "The confrontation demonstrated the fragility of Pakistani politics. But it also showed that after some initial mistakes, the three key players -- Zardari, Sharif and Kiyani -- were able to defuse the crisis. The lesson for nervous Pakistan-watchers is that however enfeebled the country's elite may be, it isn't suicidal". "I think Pakistan's politicians are growing up. They are realizing that you have to meet the people's needs or you get kicked out," Shuja Nawaz, the author of "Crossed Swords," a study of the Pakistani military, was quoted as saying in the Post. "For the Obama administration, the Pakistani crisis posed the first big diplomatic test. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, joined by (Richard) Holbrooke and (Admiral Mike) Mullen, helped coax the Pakistani officials back from the brink. This intervention was deftly handled, but it deepened America's involvement in Pakistani politics -- a process that is creating a dangerous anti-American backlash", Ignatius wrote. Giving background to the crisis, how it developed and ultimately Nawaz Sharif's decision to join the march, the Post columnist, quoting U.S. and Pakistani sources, said, "Zardari asked the army chief to stop the march and protect Islamabad. Kiyani refused, after discussing the dilemma with his friend Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Meanwhile, Kiyani called Sharif and told him to return home to Lahore, according to one source. And he called the leader of the lawyers' movement, Aitzaz Ahsan, and told him to halt in the city of Gujranwala and wait for a government announcement. "Pressure on Zardari was also building within his People's Party. According to a U.S. official, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the president on the night of March 15 that he would resign if Chaudhry wasn't reinstated. (Zardari's camp says it was only a rumor of resignation.) In any event, Gilani went on television at 5 the next morning to announce that the former chief justice would return. The crisis was over. "Pressure for compromise came from Clinton and Holbrooke, in phone calls to Zardari and Sharif. According to Pakistani sources, the American officials signaled to Sharif that they wouldn't object to his becoming president or prime minister some day. Another key intermediary was David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, who urged dialogue with Sharif. "Last week's visit by Holbrooke and Mullen reinforced the deal. They saw the key players and came away hoping that the three could form a united front against the Taliban insurgency in the western frontier areas, rather than continuing their political squabbling. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's ambassador to Washington, praised Holbrooke's diplomacy. 'He brings hope that complex problems will be resolved'. "On the political scorecard, Zardari came out a loser and Sharif and Gillani as winners. But the decisive actor was Kiyani, who managed to defuse the crisis without bringing the army into the streets".