Musharraf pledges to cede army post

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- A lawyer representing Gen. Pervez Musharraf declared in court yesterday that the military leader would give up his role as army chief - but only after he has been re-elected to another term as president.

The statement, the first official and public pledge by Musharraf to relinquish the military post that has been the mainstay of his power, was apparently intended to calm Pakistan's political storm. But opponents denounced it as too little, too late.

Opposition parties said they would press a legal bid to have Musharraf disqualified from standing for re-election by an electoral college made up of members of the outgoing provincial and national assemblies, which are dominated by allies of the president. The vote is scheduled for early October.

A Supreme Court panel - minus the chief justice, who recused himself after a confrontation with Musharraf this year, when the general tried unsuccessfully to fire him - is hearing a half-dozen challenges to the Pakistani leader's eligibility for another term.

Musharraf's offer to step down as military chief after the presidential vote was delivered by government lawyer Sharifuddin Pirzada, who told the court that "President General Musharraf shall relinquish the office as chief of army staff soon after the election, but before taking the oath of office as president."

His inauguration would take place on or shortly before Nov. 15.

Aides to the president had hinted Monday that such a pledge was in the offing, but analysts said it carried far greater weight coming in a legal forum.

A senior leader of Musharraf's political party predicted that the declaration would "lower the political temperature."

"We are ready to move on. The country is ready to move on," said Mushahid Hussain Sayed, secretary-general of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party.

But opponents expressed skepticism that the president would keep his promise.

"We have had plenty of experience with General Musharraf in this regard," said Liaqat Baloch, who represents an Islamist party that filed one of the court briefs demanding Musharraf's disqualification.

The general, Baloch noted, reneged on similar pledges made after the 1999 coup that brought him to power.

Another of the complainants, a lawyers' association, called the statement a ruse meant to cloud court proceedings and ensure that Musharraf's supporters do not bolt before he has secured a new five-year term.

"It's a very clever statement," said the group's attorney, Muneer Malik. "But consider the negative: The message is that if he is not elected, he will not give up the uniform."

It is unclear whether Musharraf, who has continued to enjoy the backing of the Bush administration throughout his months-long face-off with pro-democracy activists, would accept the court's verdict if it disqualifies him.

The Pakistani leader could dissolve parliament and delay elections or declare martial law.

Laura King writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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