Pakistani leader likely to quit soon

The Baltimore Sun

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Faced with desertions by political supporters and the neutrality of the Pakistani military, President Pervez Musharraf, an important ally of the United States, is expected to resign in the next few days rather than face impeachment charges, Pakistani politicians and Western diplomats said yesterday.

His departure from office would likely unleash new instability in the country as the two main parties in the civilian government jockey for power.

The details of how Musharraf would exit, and whether he would be able to stay in Pakistan - apparently his preference - or would seek residency abroad were under discussion, the politicians said.

Musharraf is expected to resign before the governing coalition presents charges for impeachment to the parliament early next week, said Nisar Ali Khan, a senior official in the Pakistani Muslim League-N, the minority partner in the coalition government.

Similarly, Sheik Mansoor Ahmed, a senior official of the Pakistan Peoples Party, the major party in the coalition, said yesterday that the president probably would leave in the "next 72 hours."

Inexorable pressure has built on Musharraf, a member of the military by profession and often impetuous by nature, to take a way out of the current crisis that would save him from embarrassing disclosures during impeachment procedures and that would protect the nation from a prolonged political agony.

The United States and Britain sought last year to put a democratic face on the unpopular Musharraf - who was then also chief of the army - by engineering the return of the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto as his partner in a putative power-sharing arrangement. Now the two countries are virtual bystanders as Musharraf's rule seems to be coming to an end.

Bhutto was assassinated in December, and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, now the leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, emerged as a major force urging Musharraf's ouster last week. The two major political parties in the coalition said last week that they would seek to remove Musharraf, and that the grounds for impeachment included mismanagement of the economy, his imposition of emergency rule in November and the firing of nearly 60 judges.

The U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson, met with senior officials of the political parties seeking Musharraf's ouster in the past few days, and a senior diplomat in the British Foreign Office, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, met with Musharraf this week, Pakistani officials and a Western diplomat said.

The envoys did not argue against Musharraf's departure but rather stressed that he should be granted as dignified an exit as possible, the Pakistani officials said. The officials and diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

"The United States is now accepting Musharraf's removal as a fait accompli," Khan said. "They just want that he should not be humiliated. We don't want his humiliation either."

The Bush administration's continued support of Musharraf, anchored by the personal relationship between the presidents, has infuriated members of Pakistan's four-month-old civilian coalition, which routed Musharraf's party in February elections.

"Now the reaction from the American friends is positive," Khan said.

While Bush has kept up his relationship with Musharraf - including regular telephone conversations - the administration has also been trying to build relations with the new Pakistani government, as it demands greater action against militants based in Pakistan.

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