ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Predictions that Pervez Musharraf will have to flee Pakistan to escape treason charges have died along with the coalition that drove him from the presidency.
The ex-general can now eye comfortable — though high-security — retirement in the luxury villa, complete with a swimming pool and strawberry bed, that he is building in an elite suburb of the capital.
Since resigning Aug. 18 to avoid impeachment, the former military ruler has stayed below the radar as the country he ran for nine years plunged into fresh political turmoil.
Nawaz Sharif, whose government Musharraf toppled in a 1999 coup, has been baying for revenge in the form of a trial for sedition — a crime punishable with death.
But he pulled his party out of the government this week as the widower of slain former leader Benazir Bhutto made a grab for Musharraf's succession.
Asif Ali Zardari, who has seized control of his late wife's party and expects lawmakers to elect him head of state on Sept. 6, has said he doesn't object to Musharraf putting his feet up in Pakistan.
And many believe Musharraf stepped down only after Zardari promised to leave him in peace — partly to please foreign backers such as the United States and Saudi Arabia.
"There is hardly any chance that Musharraf will ever be tried in Pakistan," said Nazir Naji, a commentator on Pakistan's top-selling Jang newspaper. "I believe Musharraf got all the guarantees he wanted."
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told reporters Friday that Zardari — who is widely expected to win a Sept. 6 presidential election by lawmakers — was staying at a hilltop mansion in Islamabad's government quarters "for security reasons."
He did not elaborate, but an intelligence official said there had been reports that the presidential hopeful could be the target of an attack and that he had switched locations after Musharraf's Aug. 18 resignation.
Musharraf, a gregarious 65-year-old who counted President Bush as a personal friend, has received a stream of guests at Army House in Rawalpindi, south of the capital, where he continues to live even though he stepped down as army chief nine months ago.
He has taken to the tennis court and the golf course to unwind after a tumultuous nine-year reign in which he took Pakistan into America's war on terror, warded of economic calamity and dealt with the aftermath of the devastating 2005 earthquake.
"He's laughed off the reports that he is about to leave the country," said Tariq Azim, a leader of the main pro-Musharraf party defeated in February elections.
"He said 'I'm not going anywhere, I'm staying in Pakistan. My house is being built and it will take another three or four months'" to complete, Azim said.
As well as a bogeyman for his feuding political enemies, Musharraf remains a prime target for Islamic extremists who hate him for allying the Muslim world's only nuclear power with the West.
He has escaped several assassination attempts and officials say the army will continue to guard its former commander closely.
But a visit to 1-A Park Road in Islamabad's Chak Shahzad district on Friday suggested that Musharraf and his wife Sehba are unwilling to live in a bunker, however well-appointed.
Behind a hedge, the spacious villa on a five-acre plot is protected only by a wall of less than six feet in places. Coils of shiny barbed wire run along the top of the barrier to thwart would-be intruders.
But for now at least, traffic can move freely on the roads along two sides and there was nothing to stop someone pressing through the bushes to get a clear view of the house.
Hammad Husain, the architect and a family friend, said the low-key security was all Musharraf's idea.
"Many people said the wall should be very high considering the security threats," Husain said. "But somehow, Mr. Musharraf has such a relaxed and cool personality that he said 'I don't want it to look like a huge, fortified castle.'"
Husain, whose father served with Musharraf in Pakistan's special forces, said the house might be finished in as little as four weeks. However, only a handful of laborers could be seen resting in the shade of the house on Friday, which has yet to be glazed or plastered.
Piles of bricks sat near the front door and a pair of idle cement mixers stood on the lawn.
By the standards of Pakistan's narrow elite, who think little of running a fleet of Land Cruisers in a country blighted by poverty, the house is quite modest.
Husain said it was one of few in the neighborhood — rough farmland on the southern edge of the city that has been parceled up for palatial residences — that abided by local planning laws that limit the house to 10,000 square feet.
The design is supposedly informed by Moroccan, Turkish and even Japanese influences — a medley partly inspired by Musharraf's travels. The facade is to be painted terra-cotta pink to strengthen the Mediterranean flavor.
Outside, the barrel-chested former commando will have a swimming pool designed for laps and a paved walking track which snakes past a moat-bound island and an orchard of lemon, peach and apple trees as well as the strawberries.
"He's into greenery," said Husain. While not a gardener himself, Musharraf likes "being with nature."
Musharraf bought the plot about five years ago from a banker who snapped up a chunk of what has become some of the country's hottest property.
Real estate dealers say the value of the land has risen sharply and that his new home will be worth as much as $2 million.
But Husain insisted Musharraf was not like previous Pakistani rulers — including some of those now back in the political saddle — who allegedly enriched themselves in power.
He said Musharraf had taken a keen interest in the design, insisted that none of the rooms be bigger than necessary and vetoed the use of expensive elements, such as imported Italian or Spanish tiles.
"Mr. Musharraf said he couldn't afford it, so we settled for medium-range tiles," said Husain. "It's definitely not a palace."