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Pakistan: Islamists Protest Musharraf's Bid To Remain As Army Chief

President Musharraf (file photo) The announcement on 17 December by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf that he intends to remain in the dual posts of president and army chief has angered opposition parliamentarians in the country. That's because Musharraf had made a political deal last year to step down from the post of army chief in exchange for the legitimation of his presidency and an expansion of presidential powers.

Prague, 19 December -- Islamists in Pakistan's parliament vowed on 19 December to resist plans by President Pervez Musharraf to stay on as head of the country's army despite the promise he had made to quit that post by the end of this year.

Qazi Hussain Ahmad, a leader of Pakistan's opposition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) Islamic alliance, said the Islamists are planning antigovernment rallies in the streets of Rawalpindi near Islamabad beginning today. The MMA has held two similar anti-Musharraf rallies in Pakistan during the past week.

Indeed, political tensions have been rising in Pakistan since Musharraf on the night of 17 December told the private Kawish Television Network in Pakistan's southern city of Karachi that he will stay on as army chief after 31 December.
"I will remain in uniform [even after 31 December]. I am telling you this for the first time. I will talk to the nation in a few days."

"Yes, I will remain in uniform [even after 31 December]," he said. "I am telling you this for the first time. I will talk to the nation in a few days. I will address the nation and tell them some reasons, and explain that. Then we will talk about where we are today, where we started from, where we have reached, and where we have to go."

Musharraf has had the dual role president and army chief since he seized the presidency in a bloodless coup in 1999. Musharraf had pledged last year to quit his military post by the end of 2004 in return for support from Islamist parties in parliament for constitutional changes that validated his rule and gave him extensive political powers -- including the power to disband the parliament.

But last month, the pro-military groups that now hold a majority in parliament passed a bill allowing Musharraf to keep the dual offices of president and army chief.

Musharraf has previously said that he thinks quitting as army chief would undermine Pakistan's support for the U.S.-led war on terror and his efforts to make peace with neighboring India. He also has said recently that an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis want him to remain as chief of the country's powerful military.

Today's rally by Islamists in the MMA is part of a public campaign launched last month that is aimed at forcing Musharraf to step down as head of the army.

Musharraf also faces challenges from other opposition groups -- including the Pakistan People's Party of the self-exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

But political analysts in Islamabad say the protests are unlikely to pose a serious threat to Musharraf's rule because of the parliamentary majority now controlled by the pro-military ruling party and its allies. Analysts also note that opposition groups in Pakistan are fragmented and disorganized.

Pakistani political commentator Najam Sethi says he is not surprised by Musharraf's announcement to stay on as both the president and army chief. Sethi says it remains unclear whether the opposition will be able to unite in order to launch an effective challenge.

But with little threat of mass uprisings, Sethi says he expects Musharraf to keep his rule firm -- especially with the continued support of the United States and Pakistan's military.

Western countries have criticized the undemocratic way in which Musharraf seized power five years ago. But the criticism has been relatively muted since the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States because of the role Musharraf has played in the U.S.-led hunt for al Qaida militants.

Musharraf has survived at least three assassination attempts -- two of them last December -- which security officials say were orchestrated by extremists who are angry about Pakistan's cooperation with the United States in the war against terrorism.

Pakistan's military has ruled the country for more than half of its 57-year history of independence from British colonial rule.