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Musharraf steps down as military chief

Times Staff Writer

President Pervez Musharraf today formally relinquished his position as military chief of staff, a role that for more than eight years defined him as Pakistan’s leader, but that ultimately led to a popular uprising that threatened to drive him from power.

Under intense pressure from international backers as well as domestic foes, Musharraf acquiesced at last to demands that he retire from the military if he wished to continue serving as president.

In a solemn ceremony at a stadium near military headquarters in Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjacent to Islamabad, the capital, the general handed over command to Gen. Ashfaq Kiani, a longtime loyalist. As the nation watched on live television, Musharraf, standing stiffly at attention in a full dress uniform, presented Kiani with the commander’s baton, and the two shook hands.

Attended for the last time by a high-stepping honor guard in smartly pressed uniforms, Musharraf delivered an emotional farewell speech in which he described the army as his family. “My heart and mind will always be with you,” he said.

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Because the country is under de facto martial law, Musharraf will still wield extraordinary powers, even after he takes the oath of office as a civilian president Thursday, as he has vowed to do. Nonetheless, it represents a humbling moment for a leader who until now, despite a popular uprising against him, had refused to accept curbs on his rule.

“All this is significant because it signals his serious understanding of what a predicament he’s in,” Patrick Cronin, a South Asia analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Tuesday. “It shows that if he wants to cling to power, he has to take actions he hasn’t been willing to take in the past.”

Even without his uniform, the emergency provisions Musharraf put in place Nov. 3 continue to give him sweeping powers to muzzle dissent, though recent days have seen an easing of the harsh measures.

The general suspended the constitution, imposed curbs on the media, arrested thousands of opponents and in effect dismantled the independent judiciary.

Musharraf’s abandoning of his military role could help defuse political tensions in nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is considered a crucial American ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But his decision to step aside as military chief leaves unanswered, for the moment, crucial questions about his future dealings with opposition politicians, and whether or how the country will move toward full civilian rule.

Musharraf, 64, refused to leave the army until his new incarnation as a civilian leader was assured. Pakistan’s Supreme Court, now made up of loyalists who were installed under emergency rule, last week threw out the remaining legal challenges to his reelection last month to a new five-year term as president.

Musharraf has been head of the army since 1998, a year before he ousted then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now a newly minted opposition leader, in a coup. He later assumed the role of president, a dual role that was finally challenged in earnest this year by democracy activists angry over his attempt to fire the independent-minded chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.

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From March onward, lawyers took to the streets in furious demonstrations that eventually coalesced into a nationwide campaign for the general to step down not only as military leader but as president.

Domestic political opponents as well as the United States, Musharraf’s chief patron, had demanded that he give up his army role before his presidential inauguration. But while acquiescing on the question of the uniform he calls his “second skin,” the Pakistani leader said he would lift emergency rule only once he saw fit.

Even after the general’s long goodbye was underway, beginning with a ceremonial farewell to troops and commanders Tuesday, some Pakistanis said they found it hard to believe he would actually give up the post from which he had derived much of his power.

“I will always expect to see him again in his uniform,” said Shuja Rehman, a vegetable vendor not far from army headquarters in Rawalpindi. “But it’s good if this is really the end.”

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Stepping down as army chief will undoubtedly diminish the near-total authority Musharraf has held, analysts said. He will probably be forced to share power after parliamentary elections set for Jan. 8. In the interim, a caretaker government is in place.

However, aides have been quick to point out that as president, Musharraf will still be the military’s supreme commander, with considerable say in its day-to-day running.

Kiani, the new army chief, is thought to harbor few political ambitions, and to hope to remove the military from the political spotlight. But he takes over at a time when the army is facing its toughest challenge in years from Islamic militants, who have spilled out of tribal borderlands to mount challenges in areas where the central government is supposed to hold sway.

Politics aside, military life eternally revolves around pomp and circumstance. On Tuesday, arriving at the lushly landscaped colonial-era army headquarters complex in Rawalpindi, Musharraf was greeted by a 150-member honor guard at full attention.

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Clad in a dress uniform with his medals twinkling in the afternoon sun, the general inspected the troops while a brass band played the national anthem. His face betrayed no emotion over his leaving the military service he began in 1964.

Later, he separately visited all branches of the military -- navy, army and air force -- and met privately with top commanders.

Pakistani analysts believe that Musharraf retains the loyalty of most key commanders, and that any immediate move against him is unlikely. In the longer run, they say, he will probably face difficulties as new commanders assert themselves.

Opponents welcomed Musharraf’s relinquishing of his military role, but said it did not go far enough.

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Benazir Bhutto and Sharif, both former prime ministers who have returned from exile to lead their respective parties in the election campaign, have demanded an end to emergency rule. They say elections held under it cannot be considered free and fair.

Musharraf has taken some steps to ease the decree, including freeing thousands of jailed activists and opponents and allowing most independent news channels back on the air. But he has said he will never agree to reinstate the judges and justices he fired.

At the time Musharraf enacted emergency rule, the Supreme Court was thought to be preparing to invalidate his reelection as president because the vote in parliament took place while he held the role of army chief.

The general’s aides insisted that regardless of who was in charge of the army, Pakistan was committed to the fight against Islamist insurgents.

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“Uniform or no uniform, it will not impact our war on terror,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema.

laura.king@latimes.com


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