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Musharraf aides say no decision yet on army post

They deny ex-Premier Bhutto's assertion that the president agreed to quit the military in a power-sharing deal.

August 31, 2007|Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu | Special to The Times

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — President Pervez Musharraf, beset by increasing public discontent over his military-backed regime, has not yet decided whether to step down as Pakistan's army chief and become a civilian leader, his aides said Thursday.

The statement came a day after former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who lives in self-imposed exile, announced that Musharraf had agreed to give up his military position as part of a potential power-sharing deal between them.

Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani contradicted her assertion, saying, "The issue of the uniform will be decided by the president . . . and he will not take any pressure on that issue."

Meanwhile, another rival for the nation's leadership, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said he would return to Islamabad on Sept. 10 to challenge the president. The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled last week that Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in a coup in 1999, was entitled to come back to his homeland after years of exile in Saudi Arabia.

"This man Musharraf is on his way out. . . . We will be launching a movement against Mr. Musharraf and his government," Sharif said at a news conference broadcast from London.

The dramatic and contradictory comments from Bhutto, Sharif and Musharraf's camp, made within 24 hours, highlighted the volatile situation in Pakistan. Deep political uncertainty has taken hold as Musharraf's popularity has plummeted in recent months.

The statements also appeared to be part of an emerging round of gamesmanship among the three leaders as Pakistan heads toward a presidential vote and parliamentary elections, to be held by the beginning of next year. Claims, counterclaims and veiled accusations have begun to dominate political discourse here.

Bhutto's announcement Wednesday that Musharraf had agreed to relinquish his job as army chief set off feverish speculation as to whether he would do so before the deadline for the election.

Musharraf's railway minister, a close confidant, said Wednesday that the president and Bhutto had reached an agreement on the uniform question.

But on Thursday, Musharraf's aides were backing away from such a declaration. The months-long power-sharing talks with Bhutto were continuing, they said, adding that a deal could be sealed in the next few days but that it was premature to talk about specific elements.

"Unless all issues are settled, we can't say that Issue A has been settled or Issue B has been settled," Durrani said.

Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi also said that no final agreement had been reached.

Musharraf is hoping that joining hands with Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party will lend his presidency more legitimacy, under an arrangement that probably would see corruption charges against Bhutto dropped and allow her to return to Islamabad to serve a third term as premier.

Bhutto is under pressure to seal a deal quickly now that Sharif, an unwavering critic of Musharraf, has reentered the fray. Any further delay in reaching a power-sharing agreement and announcing concessions by the president risks casting her as soft on military rule. Analysts say that concern may have prompted her declaration on the army post Wednesday before a deal had been sealed.

Bhutto spokesman Farhatullah Babar maintained Thursday that Musharraf had agreed to resign as army chief, in spite of the denials by his aides.

"Our understanding is that Gen. Musharraf has agreed to doff the uniform. Now if they are denying that understanding, it is up to them," Babar said. "We will go our way and they can go their way."

Musharraf, whom the Bush administration considers a crucial ally in the battle against Islamic extremists, had pledged to give up his uniform by the end of 2004, only to renege.

As for Sharif's promised return to Pakistan next month, Durrani, the information minister, said the government had not determined how it would respond. Pakistani officials had warned that Sharif could face arrest if he tried to return.

"The government is considering all the possible options in line with the law of the land," Durrani said. "The government has not decided anything yet."

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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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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Battle of wits

Here are profiles of the main figures in Pakistani politics today:

Pervez Musharraf

Eight years after seizing power in a military coup, the 64-year-old president faces declining public support and has been negotiating a power-sharing deal with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Initially treated as a pariah after his 1999 coup, Musharraf became a vital U.S. ally after the Sept. 11 attacks, aligning himself with the Bush administration in its war on terrorism. He is credited with bringing Pakistan back from the brink of bankruptcy and reviving peace talks with India. But critics say he has consolidated his power by marginalizing popular leaders and has thus created a vacuum filled by Islamists.

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