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Pakistan faces rocky transition

Times Staff Writer

The resignation of President Pervez Musharraf will force Pakistan’s untested new civilian government to confront a dizzying array of problems, chief among them an intensifying battle against Islamic insurgents in the nation’s long-lawless tribal areas.

Musharraf’s departure Monday, greeted with near-delirious rejoicing in the streets of Pakistani cities, also opens the door to a potentially debilitating power struggle within the country’s fragile ruling coalition, which was bound together mainly by its anti-Musharraf stance.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan, perhaps the most important yet most troubled U.S. ally in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, enters an uncertain new era with the departure of Musharraf, who stepped down hours before a parliamentary session that was to have been a prelude to impeachment proceedings over his alleged constitutional violations.

Bush administration officials had kind words Monday for the departing president, whom they had continued to support publicly long after the Pakistani public grew disenchanted with him. Musharraf, said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, “has been a friend to the United States and one of the world’s most committed partners in the war against terrorism and extremism.”

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Lately, though, his American patrons had made clear their own growing disenchantment as billions of dollars in military aid yielded few visible results in the effort against militants. After having placed so much faith in Musharraf, the administration has recently been trying to cultivate a much broader range of relationships in Pakistan -- with civilian politicians, military leaders and intelligence officers.

After months of posturing and saber rattling by Musharraf and his political foes and days of tense back-channel negotiations, the end for the 65-year-old president was astonishingly swift.

In the span of a few hours, Musharraf delivered his resignation speech for the cameras, saluted a high-stepping honor guard and climbed into a shiny black limousine, leaving the presidential palace for perhaps the last time.

The competition to succeed him could prove bitter and divisive.

As stipulated by the constitution, the chairman of the Senate, Mohammedmian Soomro, immediately took over as acting president. A new president is to be selected by lawmakers within 30 days, and the choice may be far from unanimous.

The Pakistan People’s Party, the senior partner in the 5-month-old ruling coalition, said there was no doubt that the new president would come from its ranks. The party’s ceremonial head, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari -- the college-age son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto -- flew to the port city of Karachi and declared there would be a PPP president.

“Democracy is the best revenge,” the Oxford student said, smiling as he quoted his mother, who was slain in December.

But a candidacy by his father, Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the PPP, could prove highly problematic.

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Many Pakistanis vividly remember Zardari’s corruption-tainted tenure as a Cabinet minister in the 1990s, when he was known as “Mr. 10%" for the kickbacks he allegedly demanded.

The PPP has suggested the new president might be a woman, which could pave the way for the respected new speaker of parliament, Fehmida Mirza, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Bhutto.

Another possible candidate is the new prime minister, Yusaf Raza Gillani, who spent years in jail under Musharraf.

However, the head of the junior party in the ruling coalition, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, could also assert a claim to the presidency. Without his insistent demands that Musharraf be ousted, the PPP would probably have been content to allow the president to serve out his term as a figurehead.

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One question is how much power the new chief executive will have.

Musharraf’s authority had waned dramatically in recent months, first when he relinquished his army chief of staff post in November and again when his party suffered crushing defeat in parliamentary elections six months to the day before he resigned.

But during his nearly nine years in office, Musharraf worked assiduously to strengthen the powers of the presidency. The ruling coalition had been preparing a package of reforms aimed at reversing some of those moves, although the PPP may now resist enacting them.

In his speech, Musharraf said he had asked for no concessions in exchange for his resignation, although intense indirect negotiations had been underway for days in an effort to secure a promise of legal immunity for him.

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If Musharraf remains in the country rather than heading into exile -- Turkey and Saudi Arabia are two possibilities -- Sharif might seek to bring treason charges against him, something he has repeatedly pledged to do. The former president’s continued presence in Pakistan would also pose a major headache for the nation’s security forces, which would be charged with protecting him. Musharraf has been the target of repeated and elaborate assassination attempts by Al Qaeda and other Islamic militant groups.

The Bush administration had hoped that Musharraf, even with his significantly diminished powers, could have served as a transition figure while the new government found its footing, particularly in its dealings not only with Pakistan’s military, but with the nation’s powerful and shadowy security and intelligence apparatus.

Pakistan’s military made a point of staying out of the impeachment crisis. But the new government recently had a bruising run-in with the intelligence services when it tried, clumsily, to bring the premier spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence, under the purview of the civilian Interior Ministry. That order, issued as Gillani was en route to a meeting with President Bush last month, was rescinded after an outcry within the intelligence community.

At the height of his friendship with the United States, which probably came about two years ago, Musharraf was feted in the White House and hailed as a warrior-statesman. His autobiography, “In the Line of Fire,” was a bestseller in the United States.

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On Monday, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, “President Bush appreciates President Musharraf’s efforts in the democratic transition of Pakistan, as well as his commitment to fighting Al Qaeda and extremist groups.”

But Washington’s disappointment with Musharraf has grown over the years, with Osama bin Laden -- still free nearly seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks -- a frustrating symbol of the inability of Pakistani forces to penetrate the militants’ tribal sanctuaries.

Ironically, the impeachment crisis this month has overshadowed the Pakistani military’s strongest move against militants in the tribal areas since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.

The new civilian government initially disconcerted Western allies by seeking to negotiate with militants in the tribal areas. But for days now, Pakistani helicopter gunships have been strafing suspected hide-outs in the Bajaur tribal agency, thought to be a sanctuary of major Al Qaeda figures. By Pakistani estimates, up to a quarter-million civilians have fled the Bajaur fighting, the largest internal displacement in the country’s history.

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Meanwhile, without the distraction of presidential impeachment proceedings, the government will now have to deal with public anger over widespread power shortages and galloping inflation. Many ordinary Pakistanis, even those who considered themselves well off a few months ago, are furious that they can barely afford food and gasoline and that blackouts darken homes and offices many times a day.

“Now this government will have no one but themselves to blame for all that,” political analyst Ejaz Haider said.

Although many of Musharraf’s foes hoped for more sweeping retribution than his departure appears to deliver, some urged that the focus be on reversing his actions, including his firing of dozens of senior judges during the period of emergency rule he imposed last year.

Aitzaz Ahsan, the distinguished lawyer who led the grass-roots uprising that heralded Musharraf’s downfall, said it was time for members of the judiciary, the shock troops in that movement, to “lower the black flags and rejoice.”

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Ahsan, who was jailed and then kept under house arrest for weeks during emergency rule, said he hoped for accountability but not vengeance.

“I am not a witch hunter,” he said.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes in Washington and Paul Richter in Brussels contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

What’s next

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Now that Pervez Musharraf has stepped down, it’s up to lawmakers to choose his successor -- and decide how much power he should have.

* Under the constitution, the chairman of the Senate, Mohammedmian Soomro, is now acting president.

* A new president must be elected within 30 days, to a five-year term.

* The president is chosen by an electoral college made up of members of both houses of parliament and the four provincial assemblies.

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* Traditionally in Pakistan, the president has been a figurehead and the prime minister has held most powers. But the presidency became more powerful during the nearly nine-year rule of Musharraf, who until last fall also commanded the military.

* Musharraf retained the authority to dismiss parliament and make top military and judicial appointments. Coalition partners reportedly are divided about whether to return the presidency to a more ceremonial post, with the leading Pakistan People’s Party resisting the new limits as it seeks the position for one of its own.

Source: Times Staff and Wire Reports


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