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Musharraf may resign in days to avoid trial

Times Staff Writer

Indications grew stronger Thursday that President Pervez Musharraf, whose allegiance has been a linchpin of the U.S. fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, will be pushed into resigning in the next few days rather than face a humiliating impeachment saga.

In recent days, longtime allies of the Pakistani president have fallen by the wayside. Close associates and Western diplomats signaled that the former general’s camp has entered talks to ensure that if he does step aside, he will be allowed to head abroad into self-imposed exile rather than potentially stand trial in Pakistan for constitutional violations and corruption.

The Bush administration fears that Musharraf’s abrupt departure could bring new instability to a country that possesses nuclear weapons and whose government has little authority over tribal areas along its border with Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence has warned that elements of the Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped in the region, and Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding there.

The powers of the Pakistani president have been rolled back in recent months, but in all likelihood, his ouster would set off a competition for the authority he still holds, including influence over the powerful military and intelligence establishments.

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Events remained fluid, and Musharraf could still balk at a voluntary departure. But his opponents have orchestrated a continuous public leaching of support for the former general, who came to power in a military coup in 1999.

A fourth and final provincial assembly, that of Baluchistan, was poised today to demand that Musharraf quit or face a vote of confidence in national and regional assemblies, setting the stage for the start of impeachment proceedings.

“At this point, it is hard to see why anyone would stick their neck out for Gen. Musharraf,” said political analyst Nasim Zehra.

Amid nationwide celebrations Thursday of the country’s Independence Day, anger at the president, whose allied party was decisively defeated in February parliamentary elections, was a muted but pervasive theme.

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“I am celebrating our independence, which I feel is near,” said Mohammed Saleem Iqbal, strolling with his family in a park in Islamabad, the capital. “Our independence from a certain person.”

Over the last week, following a formal announcement by the new ruling coalition that it would seek to oust the president, anti-Musharraf momentum has built, buoyed by still-strong fury over his declaration last year of emergency rule, akin to martial law. Under it, thousands of government opponents were thrown into jail, the constitution was suspended, and senior judges, including the popular chief justice, were fired, and have yet to be reinstated.

Shouts of “Go, Musharraf, go!” rang out in the high-ceilinged chambers of regional assemblies this week, as one after the other voted overwhelmingly to demand that he stand accountable. The most recent vote, in Sindh province, was unanimous, with Musharraf shunned even by members of a party that had long allied itself with him, the MQM, or Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

The ruling coalition, led by the party of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, said a detailed charge sheet against Musharraf, including allegations that he misappropriated millions of dollars in U.S. funds, would be presented next week. The national parliament, which would need to formally set the impeachment process in motion, is to meet early in the coming week.

In some respects, the move against Musharraf is a self-fulfilling prophecy, driven by assertions that he will in fact choose to exit the political stage rather than fight impeachment, as aides had previously said he would. Much of the talk of his imminent departure is coming from those who have the most to gain by his leaving.

Sherry Rehman, a close Bhutto associate who is now the country’s information minister, has asserted daily that a “tidal wave” against Musharraf is about to crash ashore. Privately, some leading members of the Pakistan People’s Party are more circumspect about the actual number of lawmakers who would vote to oust him, if it comes to that.

Impeachment requires a two-thirds majority in both the upper and lower houses of the national assembly, which the coalition, at least on paper, does not possess. Nonetheless, two senior PPP officials said Thursday that they believed Musharraf was coming around to the idea that a voluntary departure, in which he would have a degree of control over the circumstances, is preferable to a potentially debilitating impeachment fight.

But some in Pakistan are already expressing unease at the prospect of Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, becoming president in Musharraf’s stead, given his reputation for corruption. As a minister in his late wife’s Cabinet in the 1990s, he was known as “Mr. 10%" for allegedly demanding kickbacks on any major government project.

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In a commentary in Thursday’s editions of the nationally circulated newspaper the News, analyst Fasi Zaka wrote incredulously: “Who would have ever thought it would be Zardari [accusing] someone else [of] embezzlement?”

Politics in Pakistan is a highly personal affair, and bruising past encounters have come to the fore as the drive for impeachment gathers force.

Nawaz Sharif, head of the other main party in the ruling coalition, has made ousting Musharraf his chief aim. It was Sharif who was ousted in 1999 by Musharraf, then his handpicked army chief of staff, and he has told associates that he would like to see the president jailed in the same prison where he languished after being overthrown.

That is precisely the scenario the Bush administration would like to avoid. The United States, which was Musharraf’s chief patron even as his domestic popularity plummeted over the last 18 months, has found itself in an awkward position as the turmoil escalates. Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said Musharraf’s fate was Pakistan’s internal affair.

At the same time, though, the administration has made it clear through back channels that given the disorganized state of Pakistan’s fledgling civilian government, and the difficulties it has already had in formulating a coherent anti-terrorism policy, it has no wish to see a chaotic exit for Musharraf.

But for some time now, in a pattern that has intensified of late, U.S. officials here have reached out to parties across the political spectrum, making it clear that the days of exclusive reliance on Musharraf have ended.

Musharraf himself has seemed oblivious to the growing tumult. Many thought he might use his annual Independence Day address, delivered shortly after midnight, to give some statesmanlike sign that he was ready to step aside.

Instead, he spoke in a somewhat oblique and rambling fashion of the need for national unity and reconciliation, accusing unspecified foes of conspiring to undermine national institutions. Afterward, seated, he mopped his heavily perspiring brow.

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laura.king@latimes.com


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