Wednesday, December 24, 2003

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed yesterday to step down as army chief by the end of next year, part of a deal with the hard-line Islamic opposition to end a long standoff that has stalled his nation’s return to democracy.

Gen. Musharraf also agreed to scale back some of the special powers he had decreed himself after taking control in a 1999 military coup. He will remain president, but must seek a vote of confidence in parliament within one month of stepping down as military chief, according to the agreement.

“I have decided that I will take off my military uniform by December 2004 and I will step down as chief of army staff,” Gen. Musharraf said, clad in green-and-black military fatigues, in a brief televised address. “The time has come.”

The agreement, which calls for Gen. Musharraf to quit his army position by Dec. 31 next year, was signed at a hastily called ceremony in Islamabad.

The deal is an odd marriage of convenience between the U.S.-backed president and the Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of hard-line Islamic parties that has been deeply critical of American policy in the region, particularly its ouster of the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan.

A four-star general, Mohammed Yousaf Khan, is next in line to take over command of the army. However, Gen. Khan is due to complete his three-year tenure in the No. 2 position in October, and it is not clear whether he would be in position to succeed Gen. Musharraf at the end of next year, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan.

Angry about the special powers Gen. Musharraf had granted himself that give him the right to sack the prime minister and disband parliament by decree, opposition lawmakers have paralyzed parliament for months, harassing speakers, staging mass walkouts and blocking most legislation.

Under the agreement, Gen. Musharraf would have to consult with the prime minister before sacking the government, and would need to seek Supreme Court approval.

Gen. Musharraf won a five-year term as president in a referendum last year in which he was the only candidate. That October, he permitted elections to choose a national parliament and provincial assemblies, allowing a measure of democracy to return to this conservative Islamic country that has been ruled by the military for more than half its 56 years of existence.

Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, a Musharraf ally, runs the day-to-day operations of the government, but Gen. Musharraf has remained the ultimate power in the country.

Gen. Musharraf had vowed to keep his military post as long as he felt it was in the best interest of the nation. Many observers wonder how long he will be able to remain as president without the power of his army role.

On Dec. 14, an assassination attempt came within seconds of blowing up his limousine as it passed a bridge in Rawalpindi, near the capital. Jamming devices in Gen. Musharraf’s vehicle apparently delayed the explosion. Hard-line Islamic militant groups were believed to be behind the attack.

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