- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

LAHORE, PakistanOsama bin Laden yesterday jumped into a contentious fray over President Pervez Musharraf’s bid for another five-year term in office by declaring war on Gen. Musharraf and Pakistan’s “apostate army.”

The declaration was made in a tape released just hours after Pakistan’s electoral commission announced that the country’s presidential election will be held Oct. 6.

In his third new message this month, bin Laden criticized Gen. Musharraf for a July army raid on a group of heavily armed militants in the revered Red Mosque and an affiliated seminary in the heart of the capital, Islamabad.

The siege “demonstrated Musharraf’s insistence on continuing his loyalty, submissiveness and aid to America against the Muslims [which] makes armed rebellion against him and removing him obligatory,” bin Laden said in the message, according to a transcript produced by Strategic Translations, a U.S.-based company led by analyst Laura Mansfield.

Pakistani officials said the army could handle any escalation of fighting with al Qaeda and its allies — who maintain a powerful military presence in rugged wilderness areas of western Pakistan and have waged frequent battles with army troops in the past two months. In one battle, insurgents took more than 250 Pakistani soldiers prisoner.

“We are already committed to fighting extremists and terrorists — there is no change in our policy,” chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad told Agence France-Presse. “If someone is hurling threats at us, that is their view. The whole nation is behind us and the Pakistan army as a national institution.”

Gen. Musharraf took control of Pakistan in a bloodless coup eight years ago. Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, he became one of the strongest U.S. allies in the war on terrorism.

Pakistan doesn’t elect its president by a direct vote. Instead, the leader is chosen by an electoral college composed of the national parliament and the legislatures of the nation’s four provinces, two of which are controlled by Islamist parties.

Gen. Musharraf faces uncertain prospects in the election, having angered militants with the Red Mosque takeover and having alienated a much larger bloc of moderate voters with an unsuccessful attempt to fire the nation’s chief justice. Opposition parties threaten to boycott the electoral college by resigning before the vote can be held.

Gen. Musharraf said he will give up his army post if he is re-elected, but some opposition groups rejected that offer and seek to block the general’s candidacy in the Supreme Court.

Still, bin Laden’s latest proclamation could help Gen. Musharraf gain support at a crucial time, said Railways Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmad, a close Musharraf ally.

“It’s a very crucial time that they have given this statement, just as the country faces a crucial decision over its future,” Sheik Ahmad said by telephone. “They want to disturb the election.”

“Musharraf can handle this situation and he will be elected,” Sheik Ahmad predicted.

The timing bears an uncanny resemblance to bin Laden’s release of a videotape prior to the 2004 U.S. presidential election, which some pundits credit with helping President Bush to a narrow victory over his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

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