ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Pervez Musharraf will retire as chief of Pakistan's army at midweek, his aides announced Monday as the embattled leader grappled with a political scene roiled by the return of an exiled former prime minister in time for crucial January elections.
Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted by the 1999 coup that put Musharraf in power, quickly registered Monday to run in the election although he didn't drop his call for a boycott that could undermine the ballot's legitimacy.
Sharif appealed for support from Pakistanis unhappy with Musharraf's U.S. alliance, portraying himself as a politician who kept himself at arms length from Washington in contrast to the U.S.-friendly stance of the president and the other key opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto.
Even before Sharif's return Sunday, Musharraf was under pressure from opposition forces and the U.S. to end the emergency rule he imposed three weeks ago in this nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people beset by strengthening Islamic militants.
America and its allies want Musharraf to lift his suspension of the constitution to ensure a fair election, which they hope will produce a moderate government willing and capable of standing up to religious extremists with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Musharraf has eased the crackdown on dissent that saw police detain thousands of opponents and take independent TV news off air, and his aides announced Monday that he was now ready to take the long-promised step of quitting his powerful army post and ending direct military rule.
Spokesman Rashid Qureshi said Musharraf would make "farewell visits" to his troops before ending a military career that began in 1964. Musharraf planned to promote his anointed successor, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, to the military chief's post Wednesday, the aide said.
The following day, "he will take oath of office as president of Pakistan as a civilian," Qureshi said.
Musharraf suspended the constitution Nov. 3, saying he needed to stop the Supreme Court from creating political chaos and hampering the effort against militants.
The crackdown caused a break in relations between Musharraf and Bhutto, leader of the country's biggest opposition party who was twice put under house arrest to stop her from leading mass rallies against the unpopular general.
Bhutto and Musharraf have since eased their public feuding, and she filed her candidacy papers in her home district of Larkana on Monday.
She contended the election is stacked in favor of Musharraf's ruling party, but said she wouldn't participate in a boycott of the vote unless all opposition groups did — a tall order given the fractious relations among Pakistan's many political blocs.
Bhutto's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said Musharraf would be taking a major step forward by shedding his uniform, and if he made significant further concessions "then the window for negotiations can be reopened."
Sharif's return has given Musharraf a new headache because of the bad blood between them and the political threat Sharif poses in Punjab province, Pakistan's political heartland.
Sharif flew in Sunday with the apparent blessing of Saudi Arabia, an influential ally of Pakistan that had previously supported Musharraf's efforts to keep Sharif in exile there.
The former premier immediately repeated his call for a boycott of the election, but on Monday hedged his bets by filing nomination papers to contest a parliament seat in his hometown of Lahore.
Addressing supporters, Sharif sought to distinguish himself from Musharraf, who is criticized by many Pakistanis as a stooge of the Bush administration. Sharif said that as premier he ignored U.S. advice not to conduct the nuclear test explosions that made Pakistan a nuclear power in 1998.
"I never took dictation and made the country a nuclear power, but they (Musharraf's government) take dictation on every issue," Sharif said from the top of a truck carrying him in a triumphant procession from Lahore airport.
Such nationalist posturing could entice some voters away from Bhutto, who has wooed America, Pakistan's biggest sponsor, by suggesting she might let U.S. troops strike at Usama bin Laden if he is located on Pakistani territory.
Sharif is also a threat to the ruling party, most of whose leading figures broke away from his Pakistan Muslim League after Musharraf's 1999 coup. However, there was no immediate mass defection back to the Sharif fold and he has little time to organize a strong slate of candidates.
Asked about Sharif's return, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "Pakistan won't be on the right road till it's back on the road of constitutional, democratic rule."
He praised Musharraf's plan to step down as army chief. But he urged that the state of emergency be lifted before the election to give voters "confidence that their will has been legitimately expressed in the ballot box and the results will reflect their views."
Even if Musharraf, 64, can mollify his critics and avoid a boycott of the vote, he will have to build bridges with the government that emerges as well as come to terms with a diminished role as president.
Musharraf appears to retain the support of his fellow generals in the army, which has dominated Pakistan for most of its 60-year history. As president, he retains the constitutional power to fire the government and dissolve Parliament.
However, Zaffar Abbas, an editor of the respected newspaper Dawn, said Musharraf's authority in the military will inevitably ebb as Kayani, who is expected to continue pro-Western policies, settles into the top job.
Abbas said Musharraf will also have to learn how to compromise to survive in Pakistan's political bear pit.
"If Gen. Musharraf wants to remain as the president and work with all other players in the game, like the army chief and the prime minister, he will have to realize that his position is much weaker than it is at the moment," Abbas said.
Sharif and Bhutto lead the two biggest opposition parties, although the constitution bars them from serving as prime minister because they each already served two terms in the premiership. But the next Parliament or Musharraf, using his emergency powers, could remove that limit in hopes of easing political friction.
Sharif said he would not serve again as prime minister while Musharraf remained president. He also could risk disqualification from the election because of a conviction handed down in the wake of Musharraf's coup.