Friday, August 15, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | As speculation mounted that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf would resign instead of face impeachment, a leader of the new ruling coalition said Thursday that the embattled former army chief should not be granted legal immunity.

Mr. Musharraf has not indicated publicly that he will step down, though his allies acknowledged this week that quitting is an option. His rivals say they could introduce an impeachment motion in parliament as early as next week, while observers say the president may be holding out for guarantees he will not face criminal charges if he does resign.

During a speech to celebrate Pakistan’s Independence Day on Thursday, Mr. Musharraf called for reconciliation but did not mention the moves against him.

“I appeal to all elements to adopt an approach of reconciliation so that there is political stability and we can firmly confront the real problems facing the country,” Mr. Musharraf said.

But in his own Independence Day address, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party is a member of the ruling coalition, ruled out “safe passage” for Mr. Musharraf.

Mr. Sharif, who Mr. Musharraf pushed out of power in a 1999 coup, said the president had violated the constitution and compromised the nation’s sovereignty, a reference to the president’s alliance with the U.S. in the war on terrorism. Mr. Sharif’s party has previously not only demanded Mr. Musharraf’s impeachment but also called for him to be tried for treason - which carries the death penalty.

“Should safe passage be given to someone who has done this to Pakistan?” Mr. Sharif asked a crowd in the eastern city of Lahore. “He wants safe passage by breaking Pakistan’s law. He wants safe passage by breaking Pakistan’s constitution. He is asking for safe passage by selling out Pakistan’s sovereignty.”

After his coup, Mr. Musharraf dominated Pakistan for years but grew increasingly unpopular. Many Pakistanis blamed rising violence in their country on his partnership with the United States in the fight against extremism.

His popularity hit new lows in 2007, when he ousted dozens of judges and imposed emergency rule in bids to avoid challenges to his rule.

In February, his rivals - including those in Mr. Sharif’s party - defeated his allies in parliamentary elections, forming a ruling coalition that has shunted him aside and now wants to impeach him.

As a prelude, three of Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies passed resolutions this week denouncing Mr. Musharraf and urging him to seek votes of confidence or resign. The resolutions have accused Mr. Musharraf of violating the constitution and gross misconduct.

His allies have said they would defend the president and that they would prefer he fight the impeachment charges, though they acknowledge quitting is a possibility. Nonetheless, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, an aide to Mr. Musharraf, warned that an impeachment attempt could face legal challenges.

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