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Musharraf agress to quit army post

Pakistani leader scales back power in opposition deal

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's pro-US president agreed yesterday to quit as army chief by the end of 2004, part of a surprise deal with the anti-American Islamic opposition and a historic step in this nuclear-armed country's return to democratic rule.

 

Pervez Musharraf will serve out the final 3 1/2 years of his presidency, but he may be in a less powerful position and some observers questioned whether he will be able to stay in power without the military at his beck and call.

The agreement, reached after months of protests by the Islamic opposition, also forces Musharraf to scale back extraordinary powers he decreed after ousting a civilian government in 1999.

"I have decided that I will take off my military uniform by December 2004, and I will step down as chief of army staff," the 60-year-old president -- wearing glasses and clad in his green and black military fatigues -- said in a brief televised address to the nation.

"There comes a time in the lives of nations when important decisions must be taken," he said. "That time has come."

The agreement -- which came just 10 days after Musharraf narrowly escaped an assassination attempt and about two weeks before a landmark regional summit with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India -- immediately led to speculation about who would succeed Musharraf as military chief.

A pro-American four-star general, Mohammed Yousaf Khan, is next in line to take command. However, Khan is due to complete his three-year tenure in the number two position next October, and it is unclear whether he would be in position to succeed Musharraf when he steps down at the end of next year, said army spokesman Major General Shaukat Sultan.

After he steps down from the army post, Musharraf must seek a vote of confidence in parliament to serve out the rest of his presidential term, which ends in 2007. The Islamic opposition party that reached the agreement with Musharraf said it would back him in the vote.

Musharraf still enjoys popular support after ousting the ineffective government of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless 1999 coup. The general seized power after Sharif denied landing rights to the civilian plane carrying Musharraf, nearly causing it to crash with well over 100 people on board.

The agreement was signed at a hastily called ceremony in the capital yesterday between Chaudry Shujaat Hussain, the head of Musharraf's PML-Q party, and Maulana Fazal-ur Rehman, the bearded cleric who leads the hard-line Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA.

"It is good for democracy and good for the stability of the country," Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said ahead of the formal announcement. "The president has proven he is sincere about democracy."

It is a marriage of convenience between the US-backed president and the religious coalition, which won unprecedented support in October 2002 elections on the strength of an anti-American, anti-Musharraf platform.

Opposition lawmakers, led by the MMA, have paralyzed parliament for months, harassing speakers, staging mass walkouts, and blocking most legislation.

They are angry about special powers Musharraf granted himself that give him the right to sack the prime minister and disband parliament by decree.

Yesterday's agreement allows Musharraf to keep the controversial powers, but requires him to consult the prime minister before sacking the government, and then seek approval from the Supreme Court for the move.

Some opposition parties blasted the deal as a sellout that gave legitimacy to an illegal coup. The agreement "will disfigure the constitution and demolish the parliamentary system," said Sadique al-Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party.

The MMA says it will continue to vote in opposition to Musharraf's ruling faction, but would vote with the president's party to formalize the special powers.

"There is no change in our policies. We still have differences with Musharraf over his support for America," said MMA spokesman Hafiz Hussain Ahmad. He said, however, that his party would not vote against Musharraf during the vote of confidence.

Musharraf's ruling PML-Q party controls a slim majority in parliament, but needs the MMA to reach the two-thirds support necessary to amend the constitution and ratify the powers.

Musharraf won a five-year term as president in a 2002 referendum in which he was the only candidate.

In October 2002, he allowed elections to choose a national parliament and provincial assemblies, permitting a measure of democracy to return to this conservative Islamic country. Both Sharif and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Pakistan's leading political figures, were barred from taking part in the vote.

Sharif lives in exile in Saudi Arabia, and Bhutto splits her time between London and Dubai. She faces arrest on corruption charges if she returns to Pakistan.

Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a Musharraf ally, now runs the day-to-day operations of the government.

Musharraf was jolted by a Dec. 14 assassination attempt that came within seconds of blowing up his limousine as it passed a bridge in Rawalpindi, near the capital. High-tech jamming devices in Musharraf's vehicle apparently delayed the explosion. Hard-line Islamic militant groups are believed to be behind the attack, though no important suspects have been arrested.

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