Musharraf seen as weak
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf backed away Thursday from imposing a state of emergency in Pakistan that would have drastically curtailed freedoms.The decision came after strong opposition from critics in and out of government. That Musharraf was even considering such an idea was seen as a sign of weakness from the embattled leader as he seeks re-election for another five-year term.Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, has come under increasing pressure from forces at home to restore full democracy, and rising U.S. criticism to do more to stop the Taliban and al-Qaida from regrouping in the restive border region with Afghanistan.The combination of a series of domestic crises and a recent wave of militant violence has left Musharraf at his most vulnerable yet as the country heads toward a presidential vote this fall and parliamentary elections due by early next year.He has tried a range of strategies to win his battles against militants and in politics.After a peace deal with Taliban militants failed, he ordered troops back into the border region and an army raid on Islamabad’s radical Red Mosque – pleasing his Western allies but stirring more violence at home.On the political front, his bungled attempt to remove Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry drew thousands of protesters into the streets and raised calls for democracy. That has thrown into serious doubt his bid to win another presidential term while he still holds his post as army chief.Musharraf recently held talks with exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on a possible power-sharing deal. But the outcome remains unclear and he appears in no mood to reconcile with Nawaz Sharif, another exiled premier.Analysts say the talk of a state of emergency is a sign desperation is creeping in.”Nothing seems to be working for him,” said political analyst Talat Masood. Declaring a state of emergency “is his weapon of last resort. But it would be a weapon of mass destruction, of mass political destruction.””I don’t see any prospects for him,” agreed Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. By considering the imposition of a state of emergency, Musharraf had shown he was struggling hold power by normal political means.”He’s riding a rudderless ship in the middle of a political storm,” Rais said.Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said members of the ruling coalition and “certain other political entities” whom he did not name had suggested to Musharraf that he declare a state of emergency – allowed under the constitution to deal with serious internal or external security threats.Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz acknowledged Thursday he had discussed the possibility with the Pakistani president – who also met during the day with legal experts and security officials.”We have reviewed the matter, the president and myself, and at the time being, we do not see the need for such action,” Aziz told a news conference.In Washington, President Bush told reporters he had seen no evidence that Musharraf was preparing to make an emergency declaration. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke by phone with Musharraf early Thursday in Pakistan, said spokesman Sean McCormack, declining to give details of the discussion.”President Musharraf and the Pakistani government have … demonstrated that they want to operate within its laws and Pakistan’s constitution,” McCormack said.Pakistani television stations began reporting late Wednesday that Musharraf could be about to impose emergency rule. The Pakistani leader’s abrupt cancellation of a visit to Afghanistan to attend a meeting of hundreds of tribal elders to discuss cross-border militancy also fueled speculation something was afoot.In the early hours of Thursday, Tariq Azim, the deputy information minister, said a state of emergency was not desirable but could not be ruled out.He cited rising militant violence in the region bordering Afghanistan, and resentment at comments from Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama and others about possible unilateral U.S. military strikes against al-Qaida in Pakistan.Obama “remains concerned about the situation and has and will continue to underscore his commitment to maintaining a close working relationship with Pakistan, an important ally against terrorism,” according to a statement Thursday from his spokesman, Bill Burton. “Part of any working relationship must be a candid and frank discussion of our shared interests in fighting terrorism, increasing regional stability, and promoting democracy.”In the North Waziristan tribal region, army helicopter gunships attacked two trucks and two cars carrying militants who fled the site of bombing of a military convoy Thursday, killing at least 10 fighters, army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.In neighboring South Waziristan, 16 paramilitary forces were kidnapped by suspected militants as they left a base to go on leave, a security official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.Imposing a state of emergency would have given Musharraf sweeping powers to restrict freedom of movement and assembly, and could have extended for another year the term of the current parliament, which is viewed as pro-Musharraf, although dissent is growing within its ranks.”We are against the imposition of emergency. If Musharraf does so, we will oppose it, and let me make it clear that there is no justification for it,” said Syed Kabir Ali Wasti, a vice president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party. He said Musharraf was only interested in “protecting his own interests.”The decision could also have been challenged in the Supreme Court, which has recently reasserted its independence from the government – amid doubts over whether the current security situation could justify a national emergency, despite the killing of more than 360 people in the past month.Musharraf could face tougher political opposition if Bhutto and Sharif follow through on plans before legislative elections, due before February.Sharif went into exile after Musharraf ousted him in a 1999 coup. On Thursday the Supreme Court heard a freedom of movement case he has lodged. If he wins the case, Sharif plans on coming home.Bhutto’s return has been hindered by corruption cases against her in Pakistan, but she is vowing to return by year’s end.