Pakistan Pardons Nuclear-Weapons Chief

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Thursday pardoned the founder of the country's nuclear program for selling technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea.

"There's a written appeal from his side and there's a pardon written from my side," Musharraf said at a news conference.

The move makes it less likely that Abdul Qadeer Khan (search), celebrated as a national hero for creating the "Islamic bomb," (search) will be forced to divulge the details of the leaks, which many observers doubt could have happened without the knowledge of Pakistan's military establishment.

To underscore the point, Musharraf said Pakistan would not submit to an independent inquiry into the proliferation of its nuclear technology, give any documents to the International Atomic Energy Agency (search) or let the U.N. monitor its nuclear program.

However, he said the IAEA was welcome to come and discuss the proliferation issue with Pakistan.

"We are open and we will tell them everything," Musharraf said.

IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei told reporters before the pardon was announced that it wasn't up to him to comment on "whether he [Khan] would be pardoned, apprehended or decorated."

Pakistan's Cabinet had earlier on Thursday recommended a pardon for Khan, and "decided to forward its recommendations to the President" the government said in a statement.

In a televised apology Wednesday after meeting Musharraf, Khan accepted full responsibility for nuclear leaks he said were made without government approval and asked for forgiveness.

The Washington Post on Thursday reported that Khan's confession lent new credibility to old reports that he had tried to sell nuclear technology to Iraq on the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. 

Two weeks ago, Musharraf vowed to move against proliferators he condemned as "enemies of the state," but a decision to prosecute Khan would outrage many Pakistanis.

Opposition groups have called for nationwide protests Friday to support Khan and other nuclear scientists, whom they revere.

On Thursday, Musharraf said he had sought to balance Pakistan's domestic interests and international demands that proliferation activities be brought to light.

"Whatever I have done, I have tried to shield him," Musharraf said of Khan, a national hero. But the president said "one has to balance between international requirements and shielding."

"You cannot shield a hero and damage the nation," the president said.

Musharraf refused to give further details about the pardon, a decision that he said was made on the recommendation of the National Command Authority — which controls the country's nuclear assets — and the Cabinet.

Asked about Khan's motives, Musharraf said: "What is the motive of people? Money, obviously. That's the reality."

A trial of Khan could have uncovered embarrassing revelations about top government and military officials. There is widespread belief they authorized or knew about proliferation of nuclear technology and hardware from tightly guarded facilities to countries where Pakistan had strategic interests.

The president said again on Thursday there was no official involvement in proliferation.

"The reality is that the government is not involved and that the military is not involved," Musharraf said. "It's only the media that are saying this."

In order to become a nuclear power and address the imbalance of military power with rival India, Musharraf said Pakistan had needed people like Khan — who operated covertly from the 1970s until the country's first public nuclear test in 1998.

"In the covert period there was autonomy," Musharraf said. Khan "was tasked to do something and he did it. One could not be that intrusive in case what you desired was not accomplished," he said.

Pakistan began its investigation in November after Iran told the U.N. nuclear watchdog it obtained nuclear technology from Pakistan.

Khan's public confession came after the government indicated that an apology would help him avoid a prosecution, intelligence officials told The Associated Press.

Pakistani newspapers called for a pardon for Khan, who founded the covert nuclear program in the 1970s to produce a formidable military deterrent against the Islamic nation's bitter rival India. Pakistan conducted a successful test in 1998.

"His seeking of pardon from the nation should now close this painful chapter and the much revered scientist be allowed to retire in peace with dignity," The News daily wrote in an editorial Thursday.

Pakistan began its investigation in November after Iran told the U.N. nuclear watchdog it obtained nuclear technology from Pakistan.

President Bush has called Iran and North Korea part of an "axis of evil," yet it shows no sign of pressuring Pakistan to prosecute Khan.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that Pakistani officials have given the United States assurances that "they were not going to allow their technology to be used to help other nations that might be trying to develop weapons of mass destruction."

Analysts said Washington would be reluctant to push Musharraf into a tight political spot by demanding legal action against Khan or six other suspects from a top Pakistani nuclear facility who are being detained under a security act.

"I think they understand the present position Musharraf is in and the conflicting pressures he faces," said Talat Masood, a military and political analyst. "They do not want to embarrass him further and make his job more difficult."

"Without Musharraf, the whole war on terror would be compromised."

In Vienna, IAEA head ElBaradei promised further investigations into the nuclear black market and said experts needed to overhaul export controls on nuclear components in light of Khan's admissions.

"Dr. Khan is the tip of an iceberg," ElBaradei said Thursday. "We still have a lot of work to do."

"He was an important part of the process," ElBaradei said. "[But] Dr. Khan was not working alone. There's a lot of chain of activity that we need to follow through on."

Also Thursday, Malaysia said it would investigate a company controlled by the prime minister's son for its alleged role in supplying components to Libya's nuclear program. That company has also been connected to the international nuclear black market tied to Pakistan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.