- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 7, 2008

Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf held out Saturday against rising calls for his resignation, but indicated he would quit if a hostile parliament slashes his powers and leaves him feeling like a “useless vegetable.”

Musharraf has clung to power and retained the support of President Bush despite his plummeting popularity and the defeat of his supporters in February elections. Recent media reports have suggested he was ready to go into exile.

The former army strongman, a stalwart ally in Washington’s war on terror, insisted Saturday that he would not quit under pressure. His arch-foes are calling for him to be impeached and tried for treason – which carries the death penalty.

Still, Musharraf said he would prefer to retire if the new government succeeds in its efforts to reduce his presidential role to a ceremonial one.

“Parliament is supreme. Whatever the parliament decides I will accept it,” Musharraf told reporters from Pakistani news channels, which broadcast his remarks. “If I see that I don’t have any role to play, then it is better to play golf.”

“I cannot become a useless vegetable,” the president said.

Musharraf also suggested he would step aside if political turmoil begins to engulf the country. “I cannot preside over the downfall of Pakistan,” he said.

Western officials worry that Pakistan’s coalition government is too preoccupied with Musharraf to tackle mounting economic woes, or the Islamic militants exerting ever-greater control over the country’s border regions and fueling the conflict in neighboring Afghanistan.

The two main coalition parties – both led by men jailed under Musharraf – have been calling loudly for his resignation. However, their two-month-old ruling coalition appears divided over how to deal with him.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government fell to Musharraf’s 1999 coup, has called for Musharraf to face treason charges. He is also pressing hard for the restoration of judges Musharraf ousted last year during a burst of emergency rule to halt legal challenges to his re-election as president.

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and leader of the main ruling party, recently described Musharraf as a “relic of the past” who should quit.

But Zardari has echoed Musharraf’s calls for reconciliation and wants to restore the judges as part of a cumbersome raft of constitutional amendments that would also remove Musharraf’s power to dissolve the country’s parliament and appoint military chiefs.

Some analysts doubt whether the four-party coalition can agree on the constitutional package or muster the two-thirds majority required to bring it through the parliament any time soon.

Sharif spokesman Pervez Rashid said it was “the Pakistani nation which doesn’t want Musharraf in the presidency.”

“If he is able to understand this, he should quit. Otherwise in the next few days, the nation will be on the streets and they will raise their hands and pull him down,” Rashid said.

Sharif’s party and other anti-Musharraf groups intend to join mass demonstrations that lawyers have planned for the coming week to protest the new government’s failure to restore the purged judges.

But a Zardari spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, appealed to Sharif’s supporters not to take part in the protests. He said, however, he was confident that the demonstrators would not create “a law and order problem.”

He said Musharraf should accept that he is the problem.

“The people of Pakistan want him out. The political parties want him out,” Babar told Dawn News TV. “It is best if he quits for the sake of political stability in the country.”

Musharraf, who has kept a low public profile in recent weeks, appealed to political leaders to unite and address economic woes, which include trade and budget deficits as well as double-digit inflation fueled by rising world oil and food prices.

“To take the country out of this crisis, I think reconciliation is the key. Confrontation would take the country further down,” Musharraf said. “I have no doubt the government and prime minister want to confront all these issues. My support will be with them.”

Musharraf also defended his close alliance with Bush, who has praised his efforts to track down al-Qaida suspects since the attacks in the United States of Sept.11, 2001. Musharraf claimed after retiring as chief of Pakistan’s powerful army last year that he retained its loyalty.

In a telephone call days ago, Bush said he looked forward to Musharraf continuing his role in boosting Pakistan-U.S. relations – an endorsement which fueled the widespread perception in Pakistan that Washington is micromanaging the country’s domestic politics.

Asked if U.S. support was still keeping him in power, Musharraf demurred.

He said he maintained close ties with Bush “only in the interests of Pakistan.”

“My going or staying depends on Pakistan and me and nobody else,” he said.

Associated Press Writers Zarar Khan, Asif Shahzad and Munir Ahmad contributed to this report.



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