Anti-Musharraf Front Wooing Islamists to Overshadow President

Opponents of President Pervez Musharraf are wooing Islamist politicians to bolster their drive to curb the powers of the U.S.-allied leader following his party's loss in parliamentary elections.

The negotiations bring together opposition forces who have promised to tackle extremism and Islamists who sympathize with the Taliban — highlighting the extent of the former military strongman's political isolation.

"We believe that the problems are so big that as far as possible we should take along all the political forces," Farhatullah Babar, the spokesman for slain leader Benazir Bhutto's party, The Pakistan People's Party, told The Associated Press on Friday.

Bhutto's widower and political successor, Asif Ali Zardari, warmly embraced Fazlur Rehman, the bearded leader of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, or MMA, when they met in the capital, Islamabad, late on Thursday.

The meeting went well and Babar said the two sides were meeting again on Friday to discuss forming a "government of national consensus."

The MMA, an alliance of religious parties, as well as the main pro-Musharraf group were thrashed in the Feb. 18 elections. Voters turned to the moderate parties of Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, raising Western hopes of a firm push against Islamic extremism.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, which had vowed to root out extremism before she was killed in a gun and suicide-bomb attack on Dec. 27, seems to have little in common with the Islamists beyond a wish to tame Musharraf.

MMA spokesman Abdul Jalil Jan said the alliance wanted commitments on "Islamization" from a new coalition government.

But he said MMA lawmakers would vote to strip Musharraf of the right to dissolve parliament and for the abolition of the National Security Council, a body that Musharraf established to give the army a formal say in the running of the country.

"We will support them on these issues even if we don't join the government," Jan said.

Opponents have demanded Musharraf resign, saying he has trampled on democracy, the judiciary and the media since taking power in a 1999 coup against Sharif. He was re-elected president in October by a parliament packed with his supporters.

However, he retains some U.S. support for his record in combating the Taliban and al-Qaida along the border with Afghanistan and has shown no willingness to step down, raising the prospect of a showdown with the new government.

The Pakistan People's Party won 87 seats in the recent elections. Together with Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party and other allies, the prospective coalition partners have 171 of the 272 seats in the National Assembly and hope to form a government after parliament convenes next month.

Adding the 10 seats won by the MMA or affiliated independents would take it close to the two-thirds majority needed to change the constitution or even impeach Musharraf.

A two-thirds majority is also needed in the 100-member Senate, the upper house. Pro-Musharraf parties have only a slender majority in the Senate after six senators announced this week that they would not toe the party line on votes that infringe on democracy.

Shah Mahmood Qureshi, a Pakistan People's Party leader, said his party would move cautiously toward that goal to try to prevent fresh turmoil.

"Relations with the presidency is a challenge because as you know the PPP has been talking about a balance of power between the parliament and the presidency," Qureshi told Dawn News television. "One has to tread carefully ... we do not want confrontation."

The MMA rose to prominence after the 2002 elections, when religious parties entered the government in both of the provinces bordering Afghanistan, sparking concern about the increasing influence of fundamentalist mullahs in running nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Musharraf's government accused it of vetoing tough action against Islamic militants.

But it has also cooperated with the former general in the past, for instance by voting for constitutional amendments that rubber-stamped his actions after the 1999 coup and allowed him to serve as both president and army chief until he retired from the military last November.

Some analysts expect the coalition currently taking shape to quickly break up, prompting fresh elections, if they succeed in restoring the supremacy of parliament.

"We are not really looking at only a six-month government or a one-year government, but we do look at the priorities in terms of correcting the constitutional imbalances," Babar said. "What happens thereafter is anybody's guess."

Also Friday, a roadside bomb killed a senior police officer as he traveled through a militancy-plagued region of northwestern Pakistan, police said.

The bomb killed Javed Iqbal, the deputy police chief in the Lakki Marwat district of North West Frontier Province, along with his driver, said Khaled Khan, a police official. It was unclear who was behind the attack.