ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – President Gen. Pervez Musharraf will stay on as army chief if he is not re-elected president, the attorney general said Tuesday, as the Supreme Court prepared for a ruling that could decide the fate of his bid for another five-year term.
Musharraf, a close U.S. ally who seized power in a 1999 coup, has pledged to step down as military chief if lawmakers award him a new presidential mandate in a ballot on Oct. 6.
At a Supreme Court hearing, a judge asked Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum what would happen if Musharraf was not re-elected. Qayyum said Musharraf's position was that "If I am not elected, then I will remain chief of army staff."
He said Musharraf could continue as army chief under a law that allows him to hold both positions at the same time and suggested he could retain the powerful military post as long as he remains president. The law expires at the end of 2007 although his presidential term ends Nov. 15.
The remarks could sharpen criticism of Musharraf's re-election plan and also of a crackdown on opposition parties who argue that he is ineligible to run, particularly while he remains army chief. They also could fuel persistent talk — encouraged by hard-liners in Musharraf's camp — that the general could impose a state of emergency or impose martial law if the court blocks his way.
Qayyum denied such plans. "There will be no martial law," he said. "There will be no emergency."
Security was tight for the second consecutive day near the Supreme Court building, with a ban on gatherings of more than five people and police checkpoints on roads leading into the capital. A nine-judge panel was considering several challenges to Musharraf's re-election bid after rejecting a few on Monday, mostly on technical grounds. A decision was expected within days.
The opposition claims Musharraf can't run as long as he also retains his role as chief of the army.
Musharraf has seen his popularity and power erode since his botched effort to fire the Supreme Court's chief justice earlier this year. His administration is also struggling to contain a surge in Islamic militancy.
Police began arresting leaders and rank-and-file members of opposition parties in late-night raids Saturday, a move that drew a sharp rebuke from the U.S. — Musharraf's biggest foreign backer because of his support of Washington's global war on terrorism.
The U.S. Embassy on Monday called the arrests "extremely disturbing" and urged the detainees' immediate release to help ensure a free, fair and representative vote by federal and provincial legislators.
The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Action Forum), part of the opposition alliance, said more than 600 of its members have been arrested, including people taken into custody as they left mosques after morning prayers Tuesday.
"Imagine how desperate the administration is," MMA spokesman Ameerul Azim said.
The sweeps mirrored tactics used to ensure that no crowds turned out to welcome ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif when he tried to return from exile two weeks ago. Sharif was swiftly expelled to Saudi Arabia.
Siddiq ul-Farooq, spokesman for Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, said about 200 of its members have been arrested. He said the total would have been higher, but that many had gone into hiding, learning their lesson from the earlier crackdown.
"Our experience saved us this time," he said.
Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz confirmed 42 arrests. The government defended them as a pre-emptive action to prevent street protests that could turn violent and a planned blockade by lawyers of the Election Commission on Thursday, when Musharraf plans to file his nomination papers.
"As a very close ally of Pakistan with a keen eye on Pakistan affairs, I am sure the U.S. does realize that in any democratic society there can only be a rule of law and not a rule by the mob," government spokesman Tariq Azim said Monday.
Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who plans to return next month from self-exile and has discussed some kind of power-sharing arrangement with Musharraf, joined the chorus of criticism, along with leading newspapers, who dubbed the crackdown "Operation Zero Tolerance."
Bhutto issued a statement condemning the arrests, saying her Pakistan People's Party wants "change from dictatorship to democracy, from repression to freedom of expression and from intolerance to moderation."
The News daily in an editorial called the arrests "an ominous harbinger" as Pakistan heads into elections, including a legislative poll due by January. While noting that previous governments have undertaken almost identical crackdowns, "that doesn't mean they are legal, or moral, or even justified."