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Premier Quits at the Request of Musharraf

Leader of pro-military party will be interim replacement in Pakistan. The change occurs on the eve of peace talks with India.

June 27, 2004|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

NEW DELHI — Pakistan's prime minister announced his resignation and dissolved the Cabinet on Saturday, on the eve of peace talks here between his country and its nuclear-armed rival, India.

Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali told reporters in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, that the nation's military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, demanded his resignation Saturday morning.

Jamali's departure had been widely expected. Many believe that Musharraf, who came to power in a 1999 coup, was upset that his handpicked prime minister had been unable to staunch criticism from opposition parties over a government crackdown on militants.

In a two-step succession plan, Jamali will be replaced by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, leader of the ruling pro-military Pakistan Muslim League party. After an interim period of 45 to 50 days, Hussain will hand over the post of prime minister to outgoing Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz.

Aziz is widely credited with halting Pakistan's economic slide after Musharraf persuaded him to leave his job as a Citibank executive in New York and join his government.

Jamali's departure comes as Musharraf's military regime, under pressure from the U.S. to aggressively target Islamic extremists, is facing criticism from political leaders. The pro-Islamic opposition party has protested an incursion by the Pakistani army into tribal areas where Al Qaeda members were reportedly being sheltered.

Musharraf has also been challenged by Pakistan's two previous civilian prime ministers, both of whom are barred from entering the country but who still have support from political parties.

Analysts say the departure of Jamali could indicate that the Pakistan Muslim League is also growing restless. "This may mark the beginning of the crack in the system that was put together by Musharraf," said Rifaat Hussain, head of the strategic studies department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

Musharraf has vowed to surrender his post as head of the military by the end of the year, but he has recently indicated that he may not keep that promise. His term ends in 2007.

His decision to side with the U.S. in its war in Afghanistan and, later, to initiate negotiations with archrival India, has made him a target of militants at home. Musharraf narrowly survived two assassination attempts in December, and Pakistani officials are bracing for more attacks.

It is unclear what effect the change in prime ministers will have on Pakistan's peace negotiations with India. The two nuclear-armed powers have fought three wars since their independence from Britain in 1947. After coming close to war again in 2002, triggering fears of a nuclear exchange, the nations began discussions late last year. Their foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in New Delhi today, the highest-level discussion between the nations since India gained a new government in recent national elections.

Proful Bidwai, a noted Indian journalist who has written widely on Pakistan, said the change in prime ministers was not ideal. "It is not a very healthy development," he said. "It introduces an element of uncertainty" into the negotiations.

Bidwai also noted that Jamali is a native of Baluchistan, a province bordering Afghanistan that has sympathized with Al Qaeda operatives.

"For them to see this man being dismissed so casually can be very hurtful," Bidwai said. "I can see some of the extremists in Baluchistan getting strengthened."

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