LAHORE, Pakistan – Pakistan President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said Wednesday he expects to step down as army chief by the end of November and begin a new presidential term as a civilian, warning that the country risked chaos if he gave into opposition demands to resign.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the military ruler accused former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, currently under house arrest, of fueling political turmoil, and rejected Western pressure to quickly lift emergency rule, which he indicated was likely to continue through January elections.
"All those who are blunt enough to tell me to my face what the reality is, all of them think, yes, it will lead the country to chaos if I do not handle the political environment now with me remaining as the president," he said at his army office.
The U.S.-backed general had originally planned to quit as chief of the powerful army by Thursday, when his presidential mandate and the term of the current parliament expire, but said he was forced to delay the restoration of civilian rule until a court ruling on his recent re-election.
He said the exact timing would depend on the Supreme Court — which he purged of independent-minded judges when he suspended the constitution on Nov. 3 — but expected it to happen within this month.
The U.S. and other Western allies have been pushing for him to take off his uniform and end the emergency, warning that it could seriously undermine the legitimacy of the elections that are meant to end eight years of direct military rule since he took power in a coup.
Washington wants Musharraf to share power with other moderate forces to combat rising Islamic extremism that the general cited as his reason for seizing emergency powers.
He dismissed a threat from the Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies to suspend Pakistan unless the emergency is lifted by Nov. 22.
"I take decisions in Pakistan's interest and I don't take ultimatums from anyone," he said.
He lashed out at Bhutto — a political rival but one who shares his pro-Western outlook — for stirring up political tensions since her return to Pakistan from exile was met with a massive suicide bombing that killed 145 people. He said there was now an "acute trust deficit" between them.
He said she was overplaying her popularity in Pakistan and thought it unlikely she could become prime minister for a third time by winning the elections, but left open the door for working with her if she did.
"If she does become the prime minister, we will see. I do function with everyone. I'm quite good at functioning with people. It depends on her if she wants to be on a confrontational course or a conciliatory one," he said.
On Tuesday, Bhutto was slammed under house arrest for the second time in a week to prevent her from leading a protest procession. She immediately called on Musharraf to resign and said that despite earlier negotiations between them, it would be impossible for her to work with him as president.
She said it was likely that her party would boycott the elections — a threat already made by other opposition parties, including that of Nawaz Sharif, whose elected government was ousted in Musharraf's 1999 coup. Together Bhutto and Sharif could form a powerful opposition bloc against the general.
Musharraf admitted he was concerned about the threat of a boycott, but said he thought it unlikely and urged opposition parties against it.
"They must not boycott and I don't think they're going to boycott," he said.
Under the emergency, Musharraf has banned political rallies, arrested thousands of opponents and human rights activists, and blacked out independent TV news channels. He also removed the chief justice of the Supreme Court and other judges who were poised to rule on whether he was eligible for a new five-year term.
Western government and opposition parties alike have serious doubts about whether elections can be free and fair under such conditions — concerns Musharraf gave short shrift.
"Emergency is not meant to rig elections. Emergency is in fact meant to make sure that elections are held in a peaceful manner," he said.
He accused the opposition of wanting "agitation."
"They want to disturb law and order and they want to undermine governance," he said.
Analysts say that lacking broad political support, Musharraf must retain the support of his Western allies and the army if he is to weather the most serious crisis of his rule.
He remained confident that he would retain the backing of the military even when he gives up his uniform. Commenting on unfounded rumors that spread last week that he had been put under arrest by another general, Musharraf said the army would never turn against him.
"People don't know our army. They follow me not because of the rank but because of the respect that they hold for me. I have no doubt on the loyalty of this army. Never will that happen against me," he said.
He said unity in the military would prevent Pakistan — a nuclear-armed nation beset by Islamic militants loyal to the Taliban and al-Qaida — from ever becoming a failed state.
"The military is very strong and extremely disciplined. As long as the armed forces of Pakistan remain united, which they will and are, no harm can come to Pakistan. The harm can come from the political dilemma. We have to resolve the political dilemma," Musharraf said.