Bhutto Promises to Inflict 'Severe Blow' to Musharraf's Election Plans

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Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto vowed Wednesday to inflict a "severe blow" to the re-election plan of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf by quitting Parliament unless he yields in stalled power-sharing talks.

Her threat was part of frantic last-minute maneuvering before Saturday's presidential election by national and provincial legislators that Musharraf is expected to win, assuming his lawyers can fend off two more legal challenges to his candidacy.

In an interview broadcast late Wednesday, Musharraf expressed confidence he would win a new five-year presidential term and vowed he would then give up his current dual post of army chief as promised.

"I will be elected Oct. 6 and I have the constitutional provision to remain in uniform until Nov. 15," he told Geo TV. "Once my election takes place I will remove my uniform. There are no ifs and buts about it."

But Bhutto said Musharraf's intransigence in talks had pushed her Pakistan People's Party to the brink of joining other opposition groups in pulling their lawmakers from Parliament to undercut the validity of Saturday's vote.

"Most probably today or tomorrow we will resign," she told reporters in London, where party leaders are holding a crisis meeting. "I think the resignation of the Pakistan People's Party will be a severe blow to the legitimacy of the presidential election."

Musharraf last week signaled he would restore civilian rule if re-elected, eight years after he seized power in a coup. His heir apparent as army chief was named Tuesday.

But Bhutto's party says he has failed to budge on a host of other demands, including allowing her to return to Pakistan and seek a third term as prime minister.

Bhutto led the government twice between 1988 and 1996 but fell both times amid allegations of corruption and misrule.

Musharraf's government said Tuesday it had revived talks with Bhutto — a claim that her party has yet to confirm. It also indicated it was ready to drop old corruption cases against her, clearing her way to come home eight years after she left to avoid arrest on suspicions registered by another exiled former leader, Nawaz Sharif.

The government has given few details about the proposed amnesty other than that it would apply to other politicians — not only Bhutto — and would cover cases up to 1999 in which people had not been convicted. Bhutto, however, said the immunity plan seemed to be aimed at helping Musharraf's own supporters.

Bhutto, who intends to return to Pakistan on Oct. 18, is demanding a constitutional amendment that would allow her to seek the prime minister's job again. She also wants Musharraf to cede the president's power to dissolve Parliament and reforms to guarantee that parliamentary elections due by January are free and fair.

"He is prepared to say this will be done at some indefinite, indeterminate future time. But none of it can be done for the presidential election, and after the presidential elections, well it's another day, and we will see," Bhutto said.

She said the talks were "totally stalled" and that the country could be heading toward "street agitation."

Both Bhutto and Musharraf are pro-U.S. and have called for moderates to unite against extremism. Bhutto said Monday she would cooperate with the American military in targeting Osama bin Laden.

She said Wednesday that she wants to build a moderate Pakistan, shift to civilian rule and tackle social and economic problems, and that Musharraf claims he wants the same things.

"In fact, on the ground, nothing has changed from nine months ago," Bhutto said. "Extremism has spread. Our tribal areas have become safe havens for militants. Our schools for girls are being shut down there. People are being beheaded. Our people yearn for stability and security ... for safety from suicide bombers and roadside bombers. The present regime cannot salvage the situation."