Musharraf quits army

Pakistani president heeds demands but weakens his position

November 29, 2007|By Kim Barker | Kim Barker,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- For years, he was known throughout the world as "general," and he wore his army uniform and medals proudly, even at presidential events where a suit would have been more appropriate.

But yesterday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf heeded the demands of the country and the world and stepped down as army chief, ending eight years of military rule in the world's only known Islamic nuclear power.

In doing so, the man Washington counts on in its war on terror probably eased his country's political crisis but raised new doubts about his political future.

As a civilian president, Musharraf, who will be sworn into office for another five-year presidential term today, will have limited strength, analysts said. Several retired army officers and political experts said Musharraf might be able to hold onto his job as president only for several months.

Even if he lasts, they say, his power will be significantly diminished as influence inevitably seeps away to his army successor and his remaining popular support probably fragments.

"I think he's going to be in a very vulnerable position," said Hamid Gul, a retired general and spy chief who once taught Musharraf in the military. "I almost feel sorry for him."

The fate of Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999, has repercussions far outside Pakistan. For years, he has been a close ally of the U.S. in its battle against Islamic radicals.

President Bush has considered him a friend and bent over backward to call him a democratic leader, even as Musharraf made his decision to suspend the constitution and impose emergency rule Nov. 3.

The Bush administration has stood behind Musharraf while urging him to step down as army chief, lift emergency rule and hold free elections. But it was unclear how forcefully the U.S. would or could act to help him maintain power.

Opposition politicians and Western leaders welcomed Musharraf's unprecedented decision to doff his uniform, which he had previously called a "second skin." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it a "good first step" on ABC's Good Morning America. "The most stabilizing thing will be for Pakistan to have free and fair elections so that Pakistan can stay and return to a democratic path," she said.

Yesterday, there were signs that emergency rule could end soon.

The respected Dawn television channel reported yesterday morning that sources said the emergency could be lifted within 48 hours. Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said in a telephone interview yesterday that the emergency would probably be lifted within two weeks.

If that happens, all opposition political parties are likely to contest parliamentary elections, which are supposed to be Jan. 8. These elections will determine the country's prime minister and in all likelihood Musharraf's fate.

In many ways, the decision of Musharraf to step down as army chief was both unavoidable and politically suicidal, analysts said. He had little choice after a huge plunge in popularity this year and his failure to honor earlier promises to quit the military.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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