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Musharraf may quit military post

Pakistan's president has agreed to do so as part of a power-sharing deal that is nearly finalized, says ex-Premier Bhutto.

August 30, 2007|Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said Wednesday that President Pervez Musharraf had agreed to step down as army chief as part of a deal that could keep him in power and return her from exile to political leadership here.

Bhutto, who lives in self-imposed exile, said in London that she expected the president to announce when he would give up his military post sometime before a vote on extending his presidential term later this year.

"I have made it clear to Musharraf that my party, the Pakistan People's Party, supports the constitution, which requires that the president be a civilian who is legitimately selected by the parliament and provincial assemblies," she said.

There was no immediate confirmation from Musharraf himself that he would give up his uniform. Musharraf is a key U.S. ally whose dual role has come under intensified criticism over the last several months.

But Sheik Rashid Ahmed, the railways minister who is close to the president, said today that the uniform issue had been decided between Musharraf and Bhutto some time ago and that negotiations had moved on to final issues of power-sharing.

"The deal is going to be successful," Ahmed said

Both sides said a final power-sharing deal had not yet been reached. Bhutto may be feeling pressure to move quickly because she risks being seen as tainted for negotiating with a military leader. That may have helped precipitate her statements about Musharraf agreeing to give up his uniform, before a deal has been sealed.

Bhutto, who went into exile nearly a decade ago, soon after her government was dismissed amid corruption charges, and Musharraf, a general who took power in a 1999 coup, have been in talks for months on possible power-sharing. In an interview with Pakistan's private Aaj TV, Bhutto said that a deal was close.

"Eighty to 90% of issues have been settled," she said. Still to be resolved were issues concerning the distribution of power between the parliament and the president's office, she said.

Any deal would probably allow the beleaguered Musharraf to retain the presidency and Bhutto to become prime minister for a third time and charges against her to be dropped.

Aside from Bhutto's insistence that Musharraf pack away his uniform, popular discontent has swelled over his military role.

His suspension this year of the Supreme Court chief justice helped crystallize the opposition. Many Pakistanis believe that the judge, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, was targeted for being too independent-minded. Chaudhry was reinstated last month after violent protests. His return fueled speculation that an emboldened court would find the dual role unconstitutional.

The court put Musharraf under further pressure last week when it ruled that Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted from power, could return from exile. Sharif, a vocal critic of Musharraf, has vowed to return to Pakistan before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts in mid-September.

Both Musharraf and Bhutto probably will want to undercut Sharif by speeding up their talks. "That's why I foresee in the next few days Benazir Bhutto trying to take a fair amount of credit for" a decision by Musharraf to step down as army chief, said analyst Shafqat Mehmood.

Media here have reported that Bhutto may try to return to Islamabad before Sharif.

For Musharraf to remain president and for Bhutto to become premier again would require some finessing, or changing, of the constitution.

At present, the constitution restricts premiers to two terms, which Bhutto has already served. Another law appears to require Musharraf to wait two years before running for election.

His plan for reelection also will probably face legal challenges because many say the power to elect a president rests with the new parliament due to be voted in by early next year.

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henry.chu@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad and Times staff writer Chu from New Delhi.

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