Pakistan leader to quit army this month
AP Interview: Pakistan's Musharraf Expects to Quit Army This Month, Restore Civilian Rule

Nov 14, 2007 12:16 EST

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Wednesday he expects to step down as army chief by the end of November and begin a new presidential term as a civilian, warning that Pakistan risked chaos if he gave into opposition demands to resign.

In an interview with The Associated Press, he accused former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, currently under house arrest, of fueling political turmoil and rejected Western pressure to quickly lift emergency rule, which he indicated was likely to continue through the January elections.

"I take decisions in Pakistan's interest and I don't take ultimatums from anyone," he said at his army office.

Eleven days after imposing the emergency rule that has drawn widespread condemnation at home and abroad, Musharraf was in an affable but sometimes defensive mood.

"All those who are blunt enough to tell me to my face what the reality is, all of them think, yes, it will lead the country to chaos if I do not handle the political environment now with me remaining as the president," he said.

He lashed out at Bhutto — a political rival but one who shares his pro-Western outlook — saying there was now an "acute trust deficit" between them.

He said she was overplaying her popularity in Pakistan and thought it unlikely she could become prime minister for a third time by winning the elections, but left open the door for working with her if she did.

"If she does become the prime minister, we will see. I do function with everyone. I'm quite good at functioning with people. It depends on her if she wants to be on a confrontational course or a conciliatory one," he said.

Bhutto said it was likely her party would boycott the elections — a threat already made by other opposition parties, including that of Nawaz Sharif, whose elected government was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup. Together Bhutto and Sharif could form a powerful opposition bloc against the general.

Musharraf said he was concerned about the threat of a boycott, but said he thought it unlikely and urged opposition parties against it.

"They must not boycott and I don't think they're going to boycott," he said.

The U.S.-backed general had originally planned to quit as chief of the powerful army by Thursday, when his presidential mandate and the term of the current parliament expire, but he said he was forced to delay the restoration of civilian rule until a court ruling on his recent re-election.

He said the timing would depend on the Supreme Court — which he purged of independent-minded judges when he suspended the constitution Nov. 3 — but expected it to happen this month.

The U.S. and other Western allies have been pushing for him to quit his military post and end the emergency, warning that it could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the elections that are meant to end eight years of direct military rule since he took power in a coup. The Bush administration sent its No. 2 diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, to Pakistan.

Washington wants Musharraf to share power with other moderate forces to combat rising Islamic extremism that the general cited as the justification for seizing emergency powers.

Authorities put Bhutto under house arrest Tuesday for the second time in a week, and a senior federal government official told the AP that she was grounded until at least Thursday.

"The position for her will remain like this until at least tomorrow. Then the government will review what to do with her," the official said on condition of anonymity because the matter was politically sensitive and no decision had been made to release her.

Another opposition leader was arrested after he showed up at a student rally in Lahore, police said. Imran Khan, a cricket legend who leads a small but outspoken opposition party, was the only one of Musharraf's most outspoken critics not in detention or exile.

Bhutto said Tuesday she was working to forge a partnership with Sharif. She demanded that Musharraf step down, dashing Western hopes the two moderate leaders would form an alliance to confront strengthening Islamic extremists.

Bhutto's call, which could see Pakistan's two main opposition parties joining, raised a new threat for Musharraf. It further complicated matters for Washington, which has criticized Musharraf's recent crackdown on dissent but sees him as a dependable partner against al-Qaida.

Negroponte was expected in Pakistan on Friday to underscore U.S. concerns about the situation, where rallies have been banned and independent TV news blacked out.

"We continue to want to see elections move forward in a free, fair and transparent manner (and) we want to see the emergency decree lifted," deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said. "We want to see all moderate political forces be able to work together.

Bhutto said she could not work with Musharraf.

"The international community needs to decide whether it will go with one man or the people of Pakistan," Bhutto told the AP by telephone Tuesday from the house where she is being held in the city of Lahore.

Musharraf says emergency rule is needed to curb political unrest that he says is hampering the government's fight against militants along the border with Afghanistan.

Critics contend the emergency decree was a cover to oust independent-minded judges who had crimped Musharraf's powers. They call his move outright martial law since authorities have unchecked power to detain opponents.

Under emergency rule, Musharraf has banned political rallies, arrested thousands of opponents and human rights activists, and blacked out independent TV news channels. He also removed the chief justice of the Supreme Court and other judges who were poised to rule on whether he was eligible for a new five-year term.

Western government and opposition parties alike have serious doubts about whether elections can be free and fair under such conditions — concerns Musharraf gave short shrift.

"Emergency is not meant to rig elections. Emergency is in fact meant to make sure that elections are held in a peaceful manner," he said.

He accused the opposition of wanting "agitation."

"They want to disturb law and order and they want to undermine governance," he said.

Analysts say Musharraf must retain the support of his Western allies and the army if he is to weather the most serious crisis of his rule.

He remained confident that he would retain the backing of the military even when he gives up his military role. Commenting on unfounded rumors that spread last week that he had been put under arrest by another general, Musharraf said the army would never turn against him.

"People don't know our army. They follow me not because of the rank but because of the respect that they hold for me. I have no doubt on the loyalty of this army. Never will that happen against me," he said.

He said unity in the military would prevent Pakistan — a nuclear-armed nation beset by Islamic militants loyal to the Taliban and al-Qaida — from ever becoming a failed state.

"The military is very strong and extremely disciplined. As long as the armed forces of Pakistan remain united, which they will and are, no harm can come to Pakistan. The harm can come from the political dilemma. We have to resolve the political dilemma," Musharraf said.

Khan, who had been in hiding since escaping from house arrest a day after emergency rule was declared, was promptly detained by hardline students and handed over to police Wednesday, authorities said.

Some 200 student supporters cheered wildly and lifted Khan into the air when he got out of a car on a university campus in Lahore, but other students representing the hard-line Jamaat-e-Islami party surged forward, grabbed Khan and handed him over to police, senior police official Aftab Cheema told the AP.

Cheema said Khan is being held at an undisclosed location, and was charged under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

"He created a law and order situation at the educational institution and caused a disruption in educational activities," Cheema told AP.

Jamaat-e-Islami is also opposed to Musharraf's declaration of emergency rule, but the students apparently were angered the relatively moderate Khan was allowed on campus.

Bhutto, a secularist who has served as prime minister twice, is trapped in a padlocked house surrounded by hundreds of police. Approach roads are blocked with trucks and metal barricades lined by barbed wire.

Her detention prevented her from staging a protest procession to the capital, Islamabad. The procession went ahead but was quickly stopped by police, and security forces also clashed with anti-government protesters in other cities.

Bhutto said she would work to forge an opposition alliance including Sharif, a longtime rival and former prime minister also trying to make a political comeback.

Sharif returned to Pakistan in September to prepare for the elections but was immediately deported despite a Supreme Court ruling that he could stay.

Speaking to the AP from exile in Saudi Arabia, Sharif welcomed Bhutto's comments and urged opposition parties to unite to "fight dictatorship."