Musharraf may face ouster

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - In its first decisive move against Pakistan's former military ruler, the governing coalition announced yesterday that it would seek to impeach President Pervez Musharraf unless he agrees to resign.

Musharraf's allies, though, indicated that he would fight the attempt to oust him from his civilian post.

The developments could usher in a fresh round of turmoil in Pakistan, which has spent the past 18 months in a state of political upheaval.

Pakistan is considered a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida, although relations have been badly strained lately by American doubts whether the country's new civilian government has the resolve to confront Islamic militants.

The Bush administration, which supported Musharraf as his popularity plummeted last year and throughout a deeply unpopular period of de facto martial law last fall, is concerned that his abrupt ouster could trigger instability. But U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said the president's fate was an internal Pakistani issue.

The move against Musharraf marks a rare show of unity by the two main parties in the ruling coalition, which have squabbled their way through their first five months in office.

"The coalition ... decided that it will immediately initiate impeachment proceedings," Asif Ali Zardari, head of the Pakistan People's Party, told a news conference in Islamabad. "The coalition leadership will present a charge sheet against Gen. Musharraf."

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, was a general in charge of Pakistan's military until he relinquished the post late last year.

The other main party in the coalition, that of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has worked to push Musharraf out as president as well. Sharif, who was deposed by Musharraf in the coup, has been insistent on the former general's departure from the political scene. Zardari until now was more willing to allow him to stay on as president, although with significantly diminished powers.

Musharraf's camp suggested that the coalition was simply trying to bolster its own popularity by making him a scapegoat.

"If you ask the ordinary person, what they are upset about in the country today is not the presence of the elected president," said Tariq Azim Khan, a former government minister and spokesman for Musharraf's party.

At the news conference, Zardari sought to lay the blame on Musharraf for what he called the country's "critical economic impasse," saying the roots of the current food and power woes lay in Musharraf's years in power.

"The incompetence and failure of his policies has thrown the country into the worst power shortage in its history ... and eroded the trust of the nation in national institutions," said Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who took over party leadership after her assassination on Dec. 27.

Musharraf has insisted that he would serve out a five-year term endorsed by the previous parliament late last year. Critics say that vote was invalid because Musharraf was still military chief at the time.

As president, Musharraf retains the constitutional authority to dissolve the government. Chaos could result if he attempted to wield that power rather than being pushed aside.

No date was set for an impeachment vote, but the coalition said it would convene parliament next week.

In what was seen as a clear sign of worry over the groundswell against him, Musharraf canceled a trip to the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing yesterday. Because of the importance of China as a Pakistani ally, that was seen as a serious step.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani flew to Beijing in Musharraf's stead.

Mubashir Zaidi and Laura King write for the Los Angeles Times.

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