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Musharraf Vows to Remain Army Chief

Opponents Accuse Pakistani President of Betraying Promise to Restore Democracy

By Kamran Khan and John Lancaster
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 19, 2004; Page A30

KARACHI, Pakistan, Dec. 18 -- Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, declared late Friday that he would not step down as army chief of staff by the end of the year, breaking a public pledge but asserting that to give up his uniform now would jeopardize the country's political and economic stability.

Musharraf had been saying for months that he was having second thoughts about the promise he made late last year to shed his uniform, but he had never explicitly revealed his intentions until an interview Friday night with a Karachi television station.

Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, has said dangers posed by extremists made it necessary for him to continue as army chief. (Mian Khursheed -- Reuters)

"I will remain in uniform even after Dec. 31," he said on the broadcast, adding that he would address the nation in the next few days to explain his reasoning. "I am telling you this for the first time."

Although Musharraf's decision had been widely expected, his formal declaration sets the stage for renewed confrontation with political opponents, who accused him Saturday of betraying his oft-stated commitment to restoring democracy. The army chief came to power in a bloodless military coup in October 1999.

The announcement also highlights a diplomatic challenge for the Bush administration, which has made promoting democracy in the Muslim world a top foreign policy priority but is wary of upsetting its delicate relationship with Musharraf, a moderate, secular-minded Muslim who is a key ally in the war against Islamic extremism. Military governments have ruled Pakistan for much of its 57-year history.

"Musharraf has broken a pledge with the nation, but his mentors in Washington don't care because they need such dictators all over the Muslim world," Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the head of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan's most influential Islamic parties, said in a telephone interview from the northwestern city of Peshawar. U.S. officials have refrained from commenting on the issue, describing it as a matter for Pakistanis to decide.

During the interview Friday with the private KTN channel, Musharraf said he had decided to remain in uniform because he didn't want "to weaken the democracy and economic stability in the country."

Musharraf has said on other occasions that the threat from Pakistani extremist groups may be growing too grave for him to give up his military portfolio and that ordinary Pakistanis had begged him to remain as army head. Islamic extremists have tried to assassinate him several times, including two attempts last December.

"I will speak to the nation in a few days and tell them some reasons, and tell them the truth," he said in the interview, a transcript of which was made available on Saturday. "We will speak of the future, where we are standing, where we came from, where we have reached and where we have to go."

Musharraf sounded a different note last Dec. 24, when he told Pakistanis in a nationally televised address that he had decided to step down as army chief of staff by the end of this year. "There comes a time in the lives of nations when important decisions must be taken," he said then. "That time has come."

Musharraf agreed to give up his uniform as part of a deal under which an alliance of hard-line religious parties in parliament agreed to support constitutional changes legitimizing his political rule through 2007 and significantly enhancing the power of the president's office.

Over the last several years, Musharraf has purged the army's top ranks of potential rivals and filled their posts with loyalists thought to share his secular, pro-Western outlook. Some analysts have suggested, however, that Musharraf would nonetheless be taking a risk by surrendering control of the army, traditionally the main power center in Pakistani politics.

Both secular and religious political opponents vowed Saturday to challenge his reversal, raising the prospect of street rallies, parliamentary walkouts and other forms of protest.

"We will not allow smooth functioning of the government if Gen. Musharraf does not remove his military uniform by Dec. 31," Ahmed, the Jamaat-e-Islami leader, told reporters. The religious alliance announced plans for a protest Sunday in Rawalpindi near the capital, Islamabad.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Musharraf's opponents will be able to make good on their threats. The religious alliance has already held several rallies in major cities, but turnout has been modest.

Analysts also suggested that religious parties might be reluctant to force a confrontation with Musharraf that could jeopardize their political gains. The alliance performed better than expected in 2002 national elections and now holds power in two of Pakistan's four provinces.

Pakistan's national assembly, which is dominated by pro-government lawmakers, last month passed a law permitting Musharraf to retain the posts of president and army chief of staff, although Musharraf has long maintained that he could do so without legislation.

"Nobody is going to challenge this effectively," Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times newsweekly in Lahore, said in a telephone interview Saturday. The Bush administration's silence on the issue, he added, sends a message that "is not being lost over here. The message is that Bush is fully behind Musharraf, and if the world's superpower is behind him, who are we mere mortals to try to destabilize him?"

Lancaster reported from New Delhi.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company