ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf on Thursday decided against declaring a state of emergency in Pakistan and will press ahead with plans to hold elections, a government minister said.
Pakistani media have been reporting that the military leader would impose a state of emergency to deal with rising violence and political instability — a move that a senior government official confirmed was under consideration.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz acknowledged that he had discussed the possibility of a state of an emergency with Musharraf — who also met with legal experts, security officials and officials from the ruling party.
"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.
After speaking to Musharraf by phone, apparently following those meetings, Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani said the president was committed to holding free and fair elections.
"There were suggestions from the ruling coalition and also from certain other political entities that there is a requirement of emergency in the country. But these suggestions were obviously discussed and ultimately it was decided that it this is not the time," Durrani told The Associated Press.
Speculation that an emergency could be imminent grew after Musharraf on Wednesday abruptly pulled out of the meeting in Kabul with more than 600 Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders, phoning Afghan President Hamid Karzai to say he couldn't attend because of "engagements" in Islamabad. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz went instead.
Musharraf, a key ally in Washington's fight against terrorism, has seen dwindling popular support amid a failed bid to oust the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry — an independent-minded judge likely to rule on expected legal challenges to Musharraf's bid for re-election to another five-year term. Musharraf also has been beset by rising violence in the country, particularly following an army raid to end the takeover of the Red Mosque in Islamabad, an operation that left more than 100 people dead.
In Washington, President Bush said he is confident in Musharraf's ability to crack down on militants at the Afghan border and cooperate with the U.S.
He said he expected Musharraf to take "swift action if there is actionable intelligence inside his country." Bush refused to address whether the U.S. troops would go into Pakistan without permission from leaders there.
"We spend a lot of time with the leadership in Pakistan talking about what we will do with actionable intelligence," Bush said. "Am I confident they (terrorists) will be brought to justice? My answer is, `Yes I am.' "
Tariq Azim, the deputy information minister, had said earlier in the day that a state of emergency could not be ruled out because of "external and internal threats" and deteriorating security in Pakistan's volatile northwest near the Afghan border.
Azim also said talk from the United States about the possibility of U.S. military action against Al Qaeda in Pakistan "has started alarm bells ringing and has upset the Pakistani public." He cited recent remarks by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a presidential candidate, saying they were one reason the government was debating a state of emergency.
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 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."
More than 360 people have died in a wave of suicide attacks and clashes between militants and security forces that began with a bloody army assault on a pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad in early July.
Army helicopter gunships attacked four vehicles carrying militants fleeing the bombing of a military convoy in northwestern Pakistan on Thursday, killing at least 10 fighters, an official said.
The operation was carried out in the North Waziristan tribal region after a bombing near the convoy left five soldiers wounded, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.
The government's acknowledgment that the possibility of an emergency declaration was under discussion appeared to deepen the sense of crisis surrounding the military ruler, who took power in a 1999 coup.
Political analyst Talat Masood said that if Musharraf had imposed a state of emergency, it would be an act of desperation that would doubtless be challenged in the courts, and could trigger a public backlash.
"This is his weapon of last resort," Masood said. "But it would be a weapon of mass destruction, of mass political destruction."
A state of emergency would give Musharraf sweeping powers, including the ability to restrict people's freedom to move, rally, engage in political activities and assert their fundamental rights through the courts.
Yet the Supreme Court — which has emerged as the most potent check on the military leader's dominance of Pakistani politics — could still challenge the legality of such a declaration.
Last week, a bench of the court freed a political opponent of Musharraf, and on Thursday heard a freedom of movement case lodged by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is seeking to return from exile to run in parliamentary elections. Sharif went into exile after Musharraf ousted him in a 1999 coup.
By discussing a possible emergency declaration, Musharraf could have intended to warn his political opponents, and the Supreme Court, that he was prepared to take drastic measures to curb dissent and stay in power.
But legal experts say the Supreme Court, which has emerged as the most potent check on the military leader's dominance of Pakistani politics, could still challenge the legality of a state of emergency, which would further undermine Musharraf's standing.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Musharraf by phone, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, declining to describe the conversation.
He said the United States believes Musharraf is committed to maintaining the rule of law and implementing democratic reform.
"President Musharraf and the Pakistani government have an interest and they have demonstrated that they want to operate within its laws and Pakistan's constitution," McCormack said.
Musharraf is under growing U.S. pressure to crack down on militants at the Afghan border because of fears that Al Qaeda is regrouping there.
The Bush administration has also not ruled out unilateral military action inside Pakistan, but has stressed the need to work with Musharraf.
Another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who was widely reported to have met with Musharraf recently in the United Arab Emirates to discuss a power-sharing deal, told Geo TV a declaration of emergency would be "a negative step for the restoration of democracy."
Under Pakistan's Constitution, the president may declare a state of emergency if it is deemed the country's security is "threatened by war or external aggression, or by internal disturbance beyond" the authority of provincial government's authority to control.