Pakistan's army in focus

ISLAMABAD Fri Aug 8, 2008 2:35pm BST

1 of 5. Asif Ali Zardari (R), widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and co-chairman of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, speaks during a joint news conference with former Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad August 7, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Pakistan People's Party/Handout

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Eyes were on Pakistan's generals on Friday for any gesture of support for President Pervez Musharraf a day after a four-month-old civilian coalition declared plans to impeach the former army chief.

The ex-commando, who seized power in a coup nine years ago, has yet to make any public response after being given the option of facing a confidence vote in parliament or being impeached.

A session of the National Assembly, Pakistan's lower house of parliament, has been called for Monday, coincidentally Musharraf's 65th birthday, to start what could be a lengthy process unless the president decides to bow out without a fight.

The prospects of the nuclear-armed Muslim country that is also a hiding place for al Qaeda leaders lurching into a fresh bout of instability will be viewed with trepidation by the United States and other Western nations, and regional neighbours.

A two-day meeting of the army's top brass at headquarters in Rawalpindi, the city next door to Islamabad, ended on Friday with a statement mainly about promotions which made no mention of the political crisis.

The focus is now on the man to whom Musharraf passed command of the army when he retired from the military last November.

"The fate of Musharraf now lies in the hands of Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Kayani," said analyst Lisa Curtis in a commentary for the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

Although Kayani had been Musharraf's intelligence chief, civilian politicians have been encouraged by his efforts to withdraw the army from political affairs.

Musharraf has said in the past he would resign rather than be dragged through an impeachment process by a parliament filled with enemies.

He has also said he will not use powers to dissolve parliament, but critics say the unpredictable president suffers from a "saviour complex", and he could do just that in order to remove rivals he believes are making a mess of running Pakistan.

To do it he will need the army's backing, something which analysts have described as a "worst-case scenario".

Curtis said the United States should avoid interfering, other than to urge all sides to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis to prevent a return to military rule.

ALL-TIME LOWS

While the army had accepted a switch to civilian rule which began with the defeat of pro-Musharraf parties in an election on February 18, it was supposed to be a transition, and the generals could react badly to any humiliation of their former chief.

Speaking to news channels on Friday, a leading member of the coalition, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan expressed optimism that Kayani would not let the army "meddle in politics".

Despite the uncertainty, investors in a share market that has lost 38 percent after peaking on April 21, recovered some nerve on Friday as the main index rose 2 percent. The rupee at 72.60/70 to the dollar was a brushing all-time lows struck a month ago.

Politicians and analysts believe the generals will want to watch how the situation unfolds.

"They will have their concerns, but having concerns is one thing and sending in the tanks is quite another," said Ayaz Amir, an anti-Musharraf politician in the National Assembly, and a former army major.

Pakistan has yo-yoed between civilian and military rule throughout its turbulent history, but the army's image took a battering during the Musharraf era, particularly over its role supporting an unpopular U.S.-led war on terrorism.

The civilians, this time, took over an economy facing possible meltdown, with people suffering spiralling food and fuel prices, and Islamist militancy spreading across the northwest.

Musharraf was blamed for Pakistan's multiple crises by Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto and head of the coalition, and Nawaz Sharif, the premier Musharraf overthrew, as they announced plans on Thursday to impeach him.

Sharif's party said on Friday some ministers would rejoin the cabinet, having pulled out last May after Zardari backtracked on a commitment to reinstate Supreme Court judges Musharraf had dismissed during emergency rule late last year.

It said the rest would rejoin once the judges are restored.

(Additional reporting by Augustine Anthony and Zeeshan Haider)

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