- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 29, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s president relinquished command of the country’s nuclear arsenal to the prime minister, a political ally, and signaled he was ready to shed more power as he faces growing pressure to resign.

The move came as an amnesty protecting President Asif Ali Zardari and thousands of others from graft charges expired Saturday, risking political turmoil that could distract the U.S.-allied nation from its fight against the Taliban and other militants near the Afghan border.

The political opposition called on Mr. Zardari to step down. He enjoys general immunity from prosecution as president, but the Supreme Court could choose to challenge his eligibility for the post since the amnesty decree by former President Pervez Musharraf was never passed into law.

Mr. Zardari, 54, is languishing in opinion polls. He has long been haunted by corruption allegations, dating back to the governments of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto. He denies the allegations that he took kickbacks, saddling him with the nickname, “Mr. 10 Percent.”

He also has found himself locked in a power struggle with the military, which has objected to his overtures toward rival nuclear neighbor India and acceptance of a multibillion-dollar U.S. aid bill that came with conditions some fear impose controls over the army.

Mr. Zardari’s office said the decision to transfer control of the National Command Authority to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was a step toward ceding sweeping presidential powers that had been adopted by Mr. Zardari’s predecessor, Gen. Musharraf. The authority comprises a group of top military and political leaders who would make any decision to deploy nuclear weapons.

“[Mr. Zardari] has taken the correct and democratic step, and we will see many more steps taken by the president along these lines to empower the prime minister and to empower the parliament,” spokeswoman Farahnaz Ispahani said. “He is giving up the dictatorial powers that Gen. Musharraf - as an unelected leader - needed to keep himself in power.”

Mr. Zardari also reissued 27 other Musharraf-era ordinances concerning the competition commission, defense housing and other matters ahead of a midnight Saturday deadline set by the Supreme Court.

In an interview Friday with Express News TV, Mr. Zardari said he was also likely to give away authority he inherited from Gen. Musharraf to dissolve parliament and appoint services chiefs by the end of this year as the opposition has long demanded. Doing that would weaken him politically and reduce the president to a more ceremonial role, but could reduce some of the pressures on him to step down.

A spokesman for the opposition party headed by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called on Mr. Zardari to resign despite his immunity.

“Asif Ali Zardari should take high moral ground and resign so that his credibility will increase,” said Sadiqul Farooq, spokesman for Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.

A military coup to oust Mr. Zardari appears unlikely, as does impeachment, since he heads the largest party in parliament.

Speculation over Mr. Zardari’s future escalated after he was forced to abandon an effort to get parliament to approve the amnesty passed by Gen. Musharraf that granted more than 8,000 government bureaucrats and politicians, including the president and many others from his Pakistan People’s Party, immunity from a host of corruption and criminal charges.

The amnesty list was part of a U.S.-backed deal to allow Mrs. Bhutto to return from exile in 2007 and run for office safe in the knowledge she would not be dogged by corruption allegations.

But Mrs. Bhutto was killed by an assassin shortly after she returned to Pakistan. Mr. Zardari was elected president in September 2008 by federal and regional lawmakers.

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