- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf yesterday pushed ahead with a carefully choreographed bid to hold on to power, appointing a successor as army chief and agreeing to offer amnesty to self-exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and other civilian opposition leaders.

Gen. Musharraf, a key U.S. ally who first took power in a military coup eight years ago, appears on track to win a new term as president on Saturday. The vote will be conducted in the country’s two legislative chambers and four provincial assemblies.

Under a power-sharing deal with Mrs. Bhutto, the general has promised to quit as head of the army before his new term begins Nov. 15. Mrs. Bhutto has said she plans to return to Pakistan Oct. 18 after eight years abroad to lead her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in parliamentary elections due by mid-January.

More than 80 opposition members of the 342-seat National Assembly walked out in protest over the deal, but Pakistani political analysts said the general’s plan appears tenable so long as Mrs. Bhutto’s PPP faction does not vote against him for the presidency.

Mrs. Bhutto and PPP leaders meet today in London to decide their next moves. PPP officials said they were weighing whether to support the deal in which Mrs. Bhutto would be granted immunity from past corruption charges and allowed to run for prime minister in return for not opposing Gen. Musharraf’s re-election.

“The party will make that decision as a matter of principle,” Hassan Ahmed Bukhari, head of the PPP’s British office, told Reuters news agency.

Gen. Musharraf yesterday designated Lt. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, director-general of the country’s powerful intelligence service since October 2004, as deputy army chief of staff. Described as fiercely loyal to the president and well known to U.S. military officials, Gen. Kayani would take over the top army job in the coming weeks.

The Bush administration, which badly needs Islamabad’s support in the fight against resurgent Islamic radicals in both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, has called the Musharraf transition plan a domestic Pakistani political affair.

“The future course of Pakistan is at stake in this and future elections,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “But it’s going to be up to the Pakistani people to decide within the context of their laws, their constitution and their political system.”

Musharraf aides said the immunity offer was extended to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now in exile in Saudi Arabia, as well as to Mrs. Bhutto. Both civilian leaders face major corruption charges stemming from their terms in office in the decade before Gen. Musharraf seized power.

U.S. officials hope the immunity deal and the coming elections will provide a measure of stability for Pakistan.

But Zamir Akram, a senior Pakistani diplomat and now foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, told a Washington audience yesterday that a growing “trust deficit” between Washington and Islamabad will make bilateral relations tricky no matter who is in charge.

While most Pakistanis reject radical Taliban and al Qaeda ideologies, they are increasingly resentful of criticisms and pressure from the United States, he said.

“There is a great deal of popular resentment over the perception that the Pakistani government is following a U.S. agenda,” Mr. Akram said in a presentation at the Middle East Institute. “That’s a problem that President Musharraf confronts and that anyone in power would confront today in Pakistan.”

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