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Musharraf says he'll stay as Pakistan's army chief, president

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, yesterday accused his political opponents of "threatening" democracy as he explained to the nation his decision to renege on a promise to step down as army chief by the end of 2004.

In an uncompromising nationwide televised address, Musharraf, a key ally in the US war on terrorism, insisted he must continue to hold the post of army chief of staff -- the source of most of his power -- as well as that of president to ensure continuity.

Opposition groups have been sharply critical of the move. Nevertheless, Parliament passed a law this month allowing him to stay on in both posts through 2007.

"I have decided to retain both offices. In my view, any change in internal or external policies can be extremely dangerous for Pakistan," he said.

He accused the opposition of "threatening the democratic process" by trying to make political capital from the issue.

Musharraf stressed the need for continuity in pursuing peace with nuclear-armed archrival India and fighting terrorism -- which has angered hardliners in Pakistan.

In December 2003, Musharraf agreed in a deal with a hardline Islamic opposition coalition -- the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal or United Action Forum -- to stand down as army chief by Dec. 31, 2004, in return for their support in a parliamentary vote to give him sweeping, constitutional powers to dismiss Parliament and the prime minister.

Opposition parties have accused Musharraf of acting like a dictator. The MMA has organized major protest rallies, but with little impact on the wider public.

"[Musharraf] is himself the minority," said Raza Rabbani, a member of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's opposition Pakistan People's Party. "If he is so popular and powerful, then why is he shy of relinquishing his army post?"

Mian Asalm, an MMA leader, said it would go ahead with protests against Musharraf.

Musharraf has faced little criticism from the West for his backtracking on democracy in a country which has spent nearly half its history under military rule. Musharraf is viewed by the United States, former colonial power Britain and other nations as a valuable ally in combating Islamic extremism and fighting Al Qaeda.

But he also said Pakistan would continue to strengthen its nuclear and missile capability.

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