- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf will honor a pledge to step down as army chief shortly after presidential elections this fall, despite widespread skepticism from opposition leaders, a senior Pakistani official said yesterday.

Syed Anwar Mahmood, the federal information secretary in the Ministry of Information, said in an interview that the general, who took power in a bloodless coup eight years ago, will relinquish his post as army chief of staff in December, as mandated by the country’s supreme court.

Opposition parties have been pressing the president to resign his military post in advance of presidential elections that will be held sometime between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15, fearing he will try to stay on if he wins the presidential vote.

“There is a strong feeling that the coming elections should be a smooth transition of power to the next government,” Mr. Mahmood told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“President Musharraf will be quitting as the army’s chief of staff at the end of the year. He has said so himself,” Mr. Mahmood said.

Parliamentary elections must be held within 90 days after the current legislative session ends in early November.

Gen. Musharraf has resisted past efforts to resign his military post, a key base of his power. But the embattled president, a key U.S. ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism, faces severe challenges holding on to power in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary votes.

Yesterday, suspected militants fired rockets and assault rifles at a security post and a military base in separate attacks in northwestern Pakistan, killing four soldiers, officials said.

In the first attack, militants shot at a security post in Bannu, a troubled town near the North Waziristan tribal region that borders Afghanistan, said Mohammed Noor, a local police official.

Separately, a soldier was killed and seven others wounded when militants attacked a military base in South Waziristan, another tribal region bordering Afghanistan, said Khaista-ur-Rehman, a local security officer.

Exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto met secretly with Gen. Musharraf last month in the Arab emirate of Abu Dhabi on a possible power-sharing deal that would allow her to return to Pakistan.

In an interview Tuesday with PBS’ “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer,” Mrs. Bhutto made clear that one precondition for a deal was that the general relinquish his army post if she backs him for a new five-year term as president. She also said the Pakistani leader would have to restore powers to parliament lost in the 1999 coup.

“We’re not trying to bail out a military dictator by saying we will come there on your terms,” Mrs. Bhutto said. “What we are seeking is a compromise that could help bring about a stable democratic, civilian order.”

But any deal with Mrs. Bhutto’s opposition Pakistan People’s Party carries its own risks for Gen. Musharraf — many of the president’s own political supporters are deeply worried about a Musharraf-Bhutto deal that would cut them out of power in parliament. Mrs. Bhutto is also reportedly seeking the end to a ban on her serving in parliament.

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Ahsan Saleem Hyat is slated to step down in October. Mr. Mahmood said Gen. Musharraf’s options include naming his intended successor as vice chief of staff , or selecting another three-star Pakistani general to take over the top army job when he leaves in December.

Mr. Mahmood, the top career bureaucrat in the Information Ministry, also appealed for understanding from U.S. critics over Pakistan’s fight with Islamist militants in its loosely controlled border regions with Afghanistan. Afghan officials and U.S. military leaders have bitterly complained that Islamabad has not done enough to control Taliban and al Qaeda fighters carrying out attacks from Pakistan’s side of the border.

Democratic 2008 presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois provoked a furious reaction in Pakistan when he said earlier this month that U.S. forces should go after known terrorist sites inside Pakistan — whether Islamabad approved or not.

Mr. Mahmood said the Pakistan army has stepped up its campaign against militant strongholds, but said the government has not totally abandoned a widely criticized 2006 plan to use local tribal leaders to contain the extremists.

“The government wants to use force where that is required, and persuasion where that works. There has to be a mixed approach,” he said.

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