Uncertainty over next step for Musharraf

The Baltimore Sun

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

The statement came a day after exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto announced that Musharraf had agreed to give up his military uniform as part of a potential power-sharing deal.

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

Meanwhile, another rival for the nation's leadership, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said he would return from exile to Islamabad on Sept. 10 to challenge the president. The Pakistan Supreme Court ruled last week that Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in a coup eight years ago, 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 contradictory comments from Bhutto, Sharif and Musharraf's camp, made within 24 hours, highlighted the country's deep political uncertainty 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 parliamentary and presidential elections by the beginning of next year.

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 constitutionally mandated deadline of the end of the year.

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

But yesterday, 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 within 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 seconded Durrani's assertion, saying that no final agreement had been reached.

Musharraf is hoping that joining with Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party will lend his presidency more legitimacy, under an arrangement that could 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 re-entered the fray. Analysts say a concern that Bhutto, with further delay, could be cast as soft on military rule might have prompted her declaration on the uniform question Wednesday before a final deal had been sealed.

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

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

Musharraf, whom the Bush administration considers an important ally in the battle against Islamic terrorism, has pledged in the past to give up his uniform, only to renege.

As for Sharif's promised return to Pakistan on Sept. 10, Durrani, the information minister, said that the government had not determined how it would respond. Pakistani officials have warned in the past that Sharif could face arrest if he tried to return to Islamabad.

Mubashir Zaidi and Henry Chu write for the Los Angeles Times. Special correspondent Zaidi reported from Islamabad, and Times staff writer Chu from New Delhi.

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