Sharif Mounts Challenge to Musharraf Exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif says he will challenge President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in elections this fall, even as Musharraf considers a power-sharing agreement with another rival that would have him stepping down as head of the army.
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Sharif Mounts Challenge to Musharraf

Hear Griff Witte, a reporter for The Washington Post in Islamabad

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Exiled former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he will challenge President Gen. Pervez Musharraf in elections this fall, even as the general was considering a political alliance with another rival.

Government spokesman Mohammed Ali Durrani dismissed statements by former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that Musharraf has already agreed to give up his army post as part of a power-sharing deal. Instead, Durrani said Musharraf was still considering the plan.

"No decision has been made," Durrani said. "When he will decide, he will announce it."

Bhutto, a representative of Pakistan's main opposition party, said Wednesday that Musharraf had agreed to step down as head of the army, possibly before the presidential elections.

She and Musharraf were negotiating a power-sharing agreement that could end military rule eight years after Musharraf seized power in a coup, Bhutto said. Officials close to Musharraf have confirmed that the two are engaged in such talks.

Meanwhile, Sharif said Thursday he will return to Pakistan on Sept. 10 to challenge Musharraf in the elections.

A court ruled earlier this month that Sharif, who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999, can return from exile in London.

That prospect has added to the urgency of an agreement between Musharraf and Bhutto, who share a relatively sectarian, pro-Western philosophy and stress the need to prevent the political crisis from destabilizing the nuclear-armed nation.

Durrani, the government's information minister, stopped short of denying that Musharraf was prepared to step down as army chief as part of a possible agreement.

"So far as dialogue is concerned, there can be discussion on everything," he said, but he added that the issue of Musharraf's military uniform "will be decided by the president himself. If anyone else says something about this, it is just their own opinion."

Asked if Musharraf will run in the upcoming election as military chief, Durrani replied, "He has a very clear stand on this that he will decide it himself and in the light of the constitution and law."

Musharraf's office said earlier he would not succumb to "pressure or ultimatum" in deciding whether to quit the army.

At stake is a pact that would protect Musharraf's troubled re-election bid from looming legal challenges and public disenchantment with military rule. In return, Musharraf is expected to give up his role as army chief and let Bhutto return from exile in London to contest year-end parliamentary elections.

Ministers in Pakistan have said the two sides were close to finalizing an agreement.

Musharraf has insisted that the constitution allows him to be army chief until the end of 2007 but has never made clear when - or if - he will step down.

However, Bhutto and other opposition leaders argue the constitution obliges him to give up that post before he asks lawmakers for a fresh presidential mandate in September or October.

Bhutto said that while Musharraf had also agreed to drop corruption charges against her and dozens of other parliamentarians, a remaining stumbling block is the balance of power between Parliament and the president, who can currently dismiss the prime minister and dissolve the legislature.

Conservative Religious Affairs Minister Ijaz-ul Haq accused Bhutto of blackmailing Musharraf and of working "against Islam, against Pakistan." He said on Geo news television that any deal could collapse amid "ideological differences" and reservations about waiving corruption charges against her.

The minister is the son of Gen. Zia-ul Haq, who ousted Bhutto's father as prime minister and saw him executed on murder charges in 1979 during Pakistan's previous spell of military rule.

Musharraf has seen his authority erode since March, when he tried unsuccessfully to remove the Supreme Court's top judge. The move triggered protests that grew into a broad pro-democracy campaign.

The court reinstated the judge in July, raising expectations that it will uphold legal challenges to Musharraf's re-election plan.

Officials said the pact with Bhutto would include constitutional amendments to forestall those challenges.

Musharraf had vowed to prevent both Bhutto and Sharif from re-entering Pakistan. He blames them for the corruption and economic problems that nearly bankrupted the country in the 1990s, when Bhutto and Sharif each had two short-lived turns as prime minister.

But with the United States pressing for more democracy as well as a redoubled effort against al-Qaida and Taliban militants near the Afghan border, Musharraf recently began calling for political reconciliation and an alliance of moderates to defeat extremists.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey declined Thursday to comment on whether Washington wanted Musharraf to give up his army post.

But he said the U.S. wanted Pakistan's intense political debate to result in free and fair elections and a government that continues to be "a force to help work with us to fight against extremism."

Musharraf Resignation Ends Nine-Year Reign

Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf speaks on Aug. 12, the final day of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Peace Jirga in Kabul. Presidential Palace/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Presidential Palace/AFP/Getty Images

Who Will Replace Pervez Musharraf?

Pakistan's constitution requires the country's parliament and provincial assemblies to elect a replacement for President Pervez Musharraf within 30 days. In the meantime, the chairman of the upper house of parliament, Mohammedmian Soomro, has taken over as acting president.


There is speculation that the leaders of the two main parties in the ruling coalition, Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, may both be considering a bid for the presidency. Neither man has announced his intentions.


Both have said recently that they favored stripping away some of the powers that Musharraf garnered for the office during his nine-year rule, but a less-powerful presidency may also be less desirable to the political leaders.

Musharraf meets with U.S. President George Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the White House in September 2006. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Hours after Pervez Musharraf announced his resignation as Pakistan's president, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised him as "one of the world's most committed partners in the war against terrorism." But the former general leaves office in disgrace with most of his own people, narrowly avoiding impeachment after nine years of often heavy-handed rule.

Musharraf now faces an uncertain future. Even when he had the protection of the presidency, the 65-year-old leader was the target of multiple assassination attempts by Islamic extremists. Now that he's out of power, he may be forced into exile for his own safety.

The resignation avoids a politically volatile impeachment on charges that Musharraf illegally suspended Pakistan's constitution and imposed emergency rule last November, firing dozens of judges who disagreed with him.

Some Pakistani officials feared an impeachment trial would produce embarrassing revelations about corruption in the government — and about connections between Pakistan's intelligence agencies and Islamist fighters in the country's tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.

Most of Musharraf's power derived from his control of Pakistan's army. As army chief of staff, he seized power in a 1999 coup, and he held on to his position as the country's top general until November 2007. He finally resigned his military post in the face of domestic and international pressure that painted him as a military strongman with no legitimacy as a civilian ruler.

Musharraf ultimately proved unable to control the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida in northwest Pakistan. But he succeeded in convincing the Bush administration that he was the "indispensable man" – the only one who could do it.

'Indispensable' Ally

Few leaders outside the United States have seen their destinies as intimately tied to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as Musharraf.

Two years before the attacks, Musharraf had seized power in a bloodless coup. He was largely viewed in the West as just another ambitious general who had muscled his way to the top in Pakistan, a nation that had seen more military rulers than civilian ones in its short history.

But Sept. 11 changed all of that. Suddenly, Musharraf was on the frontlines of America's war on terrorism, with President Bush frequently invoking his name as a key ally in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

This new role, however, put one of Musharraf's leadership challenges into sharp relief: namely, how to square growing demands from the country's Muslim fundamentalists with Pakistan's tradition of nominally secular government.

This balancing act has not been an easy one for a man whose skills were honed in the military rather than political arena.

A Military Man's Rise to Power

After graduating from the Pakistan Military Academy, the country's equivalent of West Point, Musharraf was commissioned in the elite Artillery Regiment in 1964 and saw action the next year against India in the second of three full-scale wars between the rival nations.

By 1971, when India and Pakistan would come to blows again, Musharraf was a company commander in the Special Service Group "Commandos."

In the coming years, he commanded both infantry and artillery divisions and filled various staff positions. As army chief of staff, Musharraf played the lead role in orchestrating a conflict with India in the rugged mountains of Kargil, Kashmir, in 1999. The handling of the conflict, which brought the two nations to the brink of a fourth all-out war, led to disagreement between the military and the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The tension between the government and powerful military prompted Sharif to dismiss Musharraf as army chief of staff in October 1999, while Musharraf was out of the country. On Musharraf's return to Pakistan, Sharif refused to allow his plane to land, forcing it into a holding pattern above Karachi airport. But a coup led by generals loyal to Musharraf toppled Sharif's government and allowed the plane to land.

Sharif and his predecessor as prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, were widely viewed as corrupt, and many Pakistanis initially believed Musharraf's power grab marked an opportunity to put the country on the path to stability.

Musharraf also seemed eager to shed the outward appearances of military rule, preferring to appear in public in a western-style suit rather than his medal-clad general's uniform.

Despite Musharraf's early efforts to downplay the authoritarian nature of his rule, it took the nation's Supreme Court, in a May 2000 ruling, to force a return to parliamentary elections. Even so, President Gen. Musharraf maintained a firm hand on the reins of government.

From Pariah to Ally

During the 1980s, Pakistan had been a key U.S. partner in efforts to drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan. Islamabad was enlisted to funnel American-funded weapons and technical support to mujahedeen fighters, some of whom went on to form the Taliban and al-Qaida, in the fighters' battle to end Moscow's decade-long occupation.

As the Cold War drew to a close, however, Pakistan was increasingly seen as an economic basket case with little promise of political stability. The Musharraf-led coup reinforced the notion. Meanwhile, the economic clout of Pakistan's bitter rival, India, was increasingly on the radar screen of Washington policymakers.

But Islamabad's fortunes were revived by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and almost overnight, Musharraf went from pariah to ally. Pakistan's cooperation was imperative for any U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, and Musharraf was quick to oblige.

An attack on the Indian parliament building in December 2001, which India blamed on Pakistani militants, brought relations with New Delhi to a new low. The attack was quickly condemned by Musharraf.

The whereabouts of Osama bin Laden also presented continuing headaches for Musharraf's government. Despite intelligence reports that the al-Qaida leader is being sheltered by locals in western Pakistan — a hotbed of Muslim extremism — Pakistan's army has been unable to find him.

Musharraf's alliance with the United States angered religious fundamentalists in Pakistan, some of whom wanted a Taliban-style Islamic government in Islamabad and viewed their president as a puppet of Washington.