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Pakistani leader to stand for reelection on Oct. 6

Opponents vow to block Musharraf's move. Bin Laden urges vengeance for deadly mosque standoff.

September 21, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Election officials said Thursday that President Pervez Musharraf would seek reelection by lawmakers to a five-year term Oct. 6, even though his bid is clouded by legal challenges and widespread popular disdain.

The announcement of the election date came as the Supreme Court heard arguments from opponents seeking to have the Pakistani leader disqualified from standing for office while serving as army chief.

It also came as a new audiotape purportedly featuring the voice of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called on Pakistanis to rise up against the president's rule.

Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, and after the Sept. 11 attacks became a key U.S. ally against the Taliban and Bin Laden's Al Qaeda.

Pakistani officials have not said publicly whether the general will abide by the high court's ruling, which is expected in the next few days. Many observers speculate that if the verdict goes against Musharraf, he might respond by dissolving parliament or imposing emergency rule or martial law.

The vote for president is to be held by lawmakers from the national and provincial assemblies, which Musharraf controls.

Some opposition parties have said they will boycott the vote.

However, the president's party says that even without them it has enough votes to reelect him.

So far, it appears that Musharraf is running unopposed. Candidates must file nomination papers by Sept. 27. Opponents have said they will mount street protests to try to prevent the filing of Musharraf's candidacy from taking place.

In response to a nationwide clamor for a return to civilian rule, the general has said he will relinquish his army post, but not until after he has secured reelection. Opposition parties have dismissed the pledge as undemocratic and unconstitutional.

"It is just more of the same from a dictator who wants only to hang on to power," said Ahsan Iqbal, spokesman for an opposition party led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was deported last week when he tried to return to Pakistan to lead his party in parliamentary elections that are to take place by mid-January.

Despite his unpopularity at home, Musharraf has retained the backing of the Bush administration, which believes his abrupt departure from the political scene could trigger instability and provide an opening for Islamic militants to win a greater share of power.

Musharraf's opponents say he is an impediment to a peaceful transition to civilian rule, not an instrument of change.

Mainstream political parties also insist that the Islamists are unlikely to gain a major foothold in parliamentary elections.

The 64-year-old general presents himself as a bulwark against Islamic extremism, a stance that may have been bolstered by new threats against him from Bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri.

Al Qaeda's singling out of Musharraf as its enemy "doesn't do anything to hurt his standing as an ally in the war on terror," said a Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

In the audiotape released Thursday, Bin Laden exhorts Pakistanis to take vengeance against Musharraf's regime for July's storming of a radical mosque in Islamabad, the capital, by government troops. More than 100 people died in the siege of the Red Mosque.

The assault on the mosque "demonstrated Musharraf's insistence on continuing his loyalty, submissiveness and aid to America against the Muslims . . . and makes armed rebellion against him and removing him obligatory," Bin Laden said.

It was the third message released by Bin Laden this month.

Pakistani government officials dismissed the threats against Musharraf.

"It will not have any effect on our activities in fighting terror," said the chief military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.

Clashes between government troops and Islamic militants in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas bordering Afghanistan have soared in the wake of the Red Mosque assault. In recent weeks, the insurgents appear to have seized the initiative, killing or capturing hundreds of Pakistani troops.

In the latest violence, a police officer was killed and four security guards were injured Thursday in a blast outside a hotel in Swat, in North-West Frontier Province.


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