An influential group of retired officers from Pakistan's powerful military has urged President Pervez Musharraf to immediately step down, saying his resignation would promote democracy and help combat religious militancy.
"This is in the supreme national interest and it makes it incumbent on him to step down," said a statement released late Tuesday to the media by the Pakistan Ex-Servicemen's Society, after a group meeting attended by more than 100 former generals, admirals, air marshals and other retired officers and enlisted men.
The call came as Musharraf, who was commander of the army until stepping down last month, was in Europe on a tour aimed at reassuring Western leaders about his ability to restore democracy and prevail in the escalating combat between government troops and Taliban rebels along Pakistan's mountainous border with Afghanistan.
The group of former generals does not speak for serving officers, but its tough stance is an embarrassment to Musharraf whose popularity has waned considerably in the past year.
It could strike a chord within the army's current ranks — which are forbidden from expressing political opinions — over how a once-respected institution has lost a lot of support among the wider public as Musharraf's personal standing has eroded over his maneuvering to stay in power.
This fall, the U.S.-backed president purged the Supreme Court, which could have scuppered his recent re-election, and briefly suspended the constitution, setting back expectations of a restoration of democracy.
"The feeling was unanimous and strong among the (retired) officers and other ranks that Musharraf is the problem and that he is a source of divisiveness, a source of centrifugal forces and an impediment to democracy," said Talat Masood, a retired general who is now a prominent political analyst.
"He is bringing down the reputation of the army, and undermining its support among the people which it needs in the war on terror," said Masood, who attended the meeting. "He has brought disgrace on all ranks."
Musharraf, a top U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, led a military coup to seize power in 1999, but retired from the army before being inaugurated for a new five-year term as civilian president in November.
His successor as army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, is believed to remain loyal to the president. The continued support of the military — which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 60 years as an independent nation — is essential for Musharraf to remain in power.
The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has continued to praise the former general, saying he is committed to restoring democracy through parliamentary elections scheduled for Feb. 18.
Kayani has moved quickly to disengage the army from politics. He has banned officers from maintaining contacts with politicians, and ordered the more than 3,000 officers now serving in the civil administration and government-run enterprises to gradually revert to their military duties.
Kayani has been praised by U.S. officials as an aggressive commander who has shown he is determined to restore law and order to the border regions that have served as a haven for Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters.
On Tuesday, Adm. William Fallon — the head of the U.S. Central Command and top commander of American forces in the Middle East — held talks in Rawalpindi with Kayani. The Pakistani army said the two men discussed the "security situation" in the region, but gave no more details.
In the latest violence, suspected militants attacked a military camp in the frontier region with rockets and small-arms fire Wednesday, killing three soldiers and wounding several others, a military statement and security officials said. The strike against Razmak Fort in South Waziristan came a day after fighting that left seven troops and 37 militants dead.
In its statement, the Ex-Servicemen's Society said its members had been watching "events in the recent past with great concern and anguish," according to the Dawn newspaper.
Tuesday's meeting brought together retired commanders of all political stripes, the daily said. It included hard-liners such as Javed Ashraf Qazi, the former head of Pakistan's feared Inter-Services Intelligence, and liberal reformists like Air Marshals Asghar Khan and Nur Khan.
"Kayani has made it very clear that army has to keep away from politics and the affairs of the state," Mirza Aslam Beg, who was chief of army staff from 1988 to 1991, told The Associated Press.
"He has realized the sentiments of the people of Pakistan that they do not want the army to intervene and take decisions on their behalf."