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Pakistan weighs emergency rule

Times Staff Writer

President Pervez Musharraf, who for months has been under enormous domestic political pressure to step aside or give up his role as army chief, was considering imposing a state of emergency, news reports and senior Pakistani officials said early today.

Musharraf, considered a key U.S. ally, was to convene his Cabinet and other senior officials later today to discuss the step, which would give his government wide-ranging powers, including the ability to restrict opposition political activities, postpone elections and dissolve parliament.

Political opponents expressed deep concern over the prospective move, reports of which came hours after Musharraf abruptly canceled a scheduled trip to the Afghan capital, Kabul, where he was to have taken part in a meeting aimed at combating the presence of insurgents in the tribal belt that straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border.

An emergency declaration would mark a dramatic escalation in the political turmoil that has gripped Pakistan over the last five months, beginning with Musharraf’s attempt in March to oust the independent-minded chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

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Heightened instability in Pakistan would have repercussions far beyond its borders. The U.S. says Musharraf has been a crucial ally against Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

At the same time, the Bush administration has been pressing the Pakistani leader hard to deprive the insurgents of sanctuary in the rugged, remote borderlands, particularly after last month’s National Intelligence Estimate said Islamic militants had been able to regroup and rearm themselves, using Pakistan’s frontier zone as a base.

Musharraf, who seized power nearly eight years ago in a coup, has seen his popularity plunge to an all-time low amid widespread dissatisfaction over his plans to continue as president while retaining his post as the chief of Pakistan’s powerful military.

Chaudhry, who was reinstated by the Supreme Court last month, presents a potential impediment to Musharraf’s plans to have the outgoing parliament that he controls elect him to another five-year term as president.

The high court today was scheduled to hear an appeal by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999 and then exiled. Sharif, like former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who also is living in exile, has said he wants to return to Pakistan to contest parliamentary elections to take place by early 2008.

Musharraf has declared he will not allow their return.

Two senior Pakistani officials, speaking on condition of anonymity and without providing details, said the emergency measure was being weighed because of Pakistan’s deteriorating security situation. Pakistan’s minister of state for information, Tariq Azim Khan, speaking to the Associated Press, cited “external and internal threats” facing the country.

Pakistan has been angry over official and unofficial suggestions by U.S. politicians that American forces unilaterally strike Al Qaeda figures believed to be taking shelter in Pakistan’s tribal lands if Musharraf’s government fails to do so.

Pakistan, which is in the midst of a major military offensive against militants in the semiautonomous border region, said any such U.S. action would violate its sovereignty.

The country in recent weeks has been plagued by suicide bombings and other attacks by Islamic militants angry over the storming of a radical mosque in the capital nearly a month ago. More than 100 people died in the raid by government forces on the Red Mosque, and at least another 250 have been killed in suicide attacks and fighting since then.

Pakistan reinforced its troop presence in the tribal areas, and a 9-month-old truce with militants in volatile North Waziristan broke down.

Musharraf’s opponents questioned whether the level of violence alone was sufficient to justify an emergency declaration, suggesting his motives might be political. Bhutto, who has been in talks with Musharraf about a potential power-sharing arrangement, told Pakistan’s GEO television from New York that a state of emergency would be “a negative step for the restoration of democracy.”

The Bush administration was apparently caught off-guard by Musharraf’s sudden announcement Wednesday that he would not attend a traditional council, or jirga, in the Afghan capital. He was to have opened the gathering today with the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

Musharraf said he was sending his prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, in his stead because he had other engagements in Islamabad, the capital.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.


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