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Pakistan: Musharraf Backs Out Of Deal To Resign As Army Chief

Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf is backing out of his promise to step down as army chief at the end of the year. Yesterday's announcement by the Information Ministry has infuriated the political opposition. Islamist members of parliament last year had agreed to enhance Musharraf's presidential powers -- but only in exchange for Musharraf's promise to resign as army chief of staff by the end of this year.

16 September 2004 -- Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed says President Pervez Musharraf had the best interests of his country in mind when he decided recently to stay on as army chief after the end of this year -- despite an earlier promise to quit that military post.

"Basically, the objective of the president keeping both posts is that Pakistan has to make crucial decisions in the coming days and coming months. Vital decisions have to be taken regarding this country's economy -- its economic problems and other problems -- for which it has become important that he remain in uniform," Ahmed said.

Pakistan's new prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, has thrown his support behind Musharraf's decision. Aziz -- a protege of Musharraf -- told Pakistan's Geo television today that he wants the military president to remain at both posts.

The political opposition in Pakistan is denouncing the decision. Both Islamic and secular opposition parties were meeting in Islamabad today to discuss a possible coordinated response.

Mullah Fazlur Rehman, the leader of the powerful Muttahida Majlis-e Amal Islamist political coalition, has warned that Islamists will launch street demonstrations against Musharraf if he refuses to step down from the military post.

There was no immediate reaction by the United States or other Western states, but analysts say the move will likely increase concerns about Pakistan's slow transition to democracy.
One Western diplomat in Islamabad, who requested not to be identified, questioned how the Pakistani opposition could have believed Musharraf would abandon the main source of his power.

Last December, Pakistan's parliament voted in favor of controversial changes to the constitution that enhanced the president's powers. But a conservative Islamist bloc conditioned its support on receiving a pledge by Musharraf that he would quit as head of the army by the end of 2004. Musharraf made that promise on national television at the end of last year.

One Western diplomat in Islamabad, who requested not to be identified, questioned how the Pakistani opposition could have believed Musharraf would abandon the main source of his power.

General Musharraf took power in a bloodless coup in 1999 after accusing then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of trying to kill him. Western nations initially condemned the coup, but that criticism was muted after Musharraf became an ally of the U.S. following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks.

When reporters asked why Musharraf had made the promise in the first place, Information Minister Ahmed said Pakistan has changed dramatically in the past nine months. "Actually, after taking stock of circumstances at the time when the president said [he would step down as army chief] and conditions today -- and after in-depth political discussions and brainstorming -- the party, the Muslim League, has decided that it is very important that he continues in both posts," Ahmed said.

Sadique al-Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif's party, today accused Musharraf of having no respect for the rule of law or democracy.

Musharraf is scheduled to travel to the United States tomorrow. He is expected to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly during his visit.