Musharraf Agrees to Resign as Army Chief

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 30, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Aug. 29 -- Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has agreed to step down as army chief as part of a broad and once-unthinkable agreement being finalized with his chief political rival, Benazir Bhutto, officials on both sides said Wednesday.

The agreement, if completed, would probably permit Musharraf to continue as president and allow Bhutto to return to Pakistan after eight years of exile to try to win back her old job as prime minister, officials said. More broadly, the deal would fundamentally alter the political landscape in Pakistan, a top U.S. ally on counterterrorism but also a haven for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

A top aide to Musharraf confirmed that the issue of the president's military status had been settled and that he would be making an announcement soon.

"It's solved," said Sheik Rashid Ahmed, a federal minister.

Later, in a telephone interview from London, Bhutto also said that while one or two issues needed to be worked out with Musharraf, the question of whether the president would stay in uniform would not be a "stumbling block."

"General Musharraf understands that the people of Pakistan want him to take the uniform off. And he wants to make the people happy," Bhutto said.

An agreement would have been highly improbable six months ago. The president, who derives much of his power from his army post and refers to his khaki uniform as his "second skin," had long resisted resigning from the military. He had also rejected the idea of Bhutto or former prime minister Nawaz Sharif returning to Pakistan ahead of elections slated for later this year or early 2008. The three are bitter rivals.

But since March, when an attempt by Musharraf to fire the chief justice led to civil unrest, Pakistan's politics have been in deep turmoil and the general's standing has fallen precipitously.

With the chief justice reinstated in July and likely to block Musharraf's plans to win a new term in office, analysts say the president's options had narrowed considerably.

An agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto would be welcomed in Washington, where Bush administration officials have been pushing for an alliance of moderates in Pakistan to battle rising forces of extremism.

Although the United States had not been actively involved in the negotiations, it had been prodding the two sides to come together and had helped to facilitate the talks, according to people familiar with the U.S. role.

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who until recently was a South Asia expert at the State Department, said a deal between Bhutto and Musharraf was the best among a set of imperfect options.

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