Political Foes Put the Screws on Pakistan's Musharraf

For eight years, President Pervez Musharraf dominated Pakistan and charmed the West as a straight-talking ally in the war on terror.

Now his political foes are in the driving seat and the former army chief is a beleaguered figure, under mounting pressure to resign.

Yet he retains the support of U.S. President George W. Bush, and Musharraf seems in no mood to give way, even though the parties in the new civilian government are arrayed against him.

In a significant shift this week, Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the largest party in the coalition that took power after crushing the president's allies in February elections, explicitly called for Musharraf's resignation. He had earlier appeared willing to work with him.

"We believe Musharraf must go because the people of Pakistan no longer want him," said party spokesman Farhatullah Babar.

"It will be better and there will be less political acrimony if he resigns rather than waiting to be impeached."

That aligns Zardari's Pakistan People's Party closer to the tough line of former premier Nawaz Sharif, whose party polled second in the elections and has been baying for Musharraf's political blood.

"It looks like Musharraf is under extreme pressure, and it's more and more difficult for him to continue," said Talat Masood, a retired general and prominent political commentator.

"The pressure is building up from every side."

That includes Pakistan's freewheeling media which has reported aggressively on the clouds gathering around the president.

The News, the biggest English-language newspaper, reported that Musharraf had "made up his mind to call it a day" after a late night meeting Wednesday with his successor as army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Musharraf denied that report Thursday and stressed that he had the "best of associations" with the army chief and gave as proof Kayani's invitation for dinner at his house this Sunday.

Speaking at a banquet attended by top officials, including Kayani, Musharraf said he was a following a policy of "conciliation, rather than that of confrontation" and would support the civilian government.

The intense focus on Musharraf's fate comes despite myriad problems facing Pakistan: controversial peace talks with Taliban militants; a gathering economic crisis; and a drawn-out dispute between Sharif and Zardari over how to restore judges axed by Musharraf.

Musharraf still enjoys the backing of his top foreign ally, Bush, who delivered a clear endorsement of his staunch ally in the war on terror after they spoke by telephone on Friday.

Bush "reiterated the United States' strong support for Pakistan and he indicated he looks forward to President Musharraf's continuing role in further strengthening U.S.-Pakistani relations," White House press secretary Dana Perino said.

That statement is likely to raise the hackles of opponents who accuse Washington of propping up the unpopular Pakistani president, who took power in a 1999 coup.

Musharraf enjoyed widespread public backing in the initial years of his rule, but lost it in large measure last year during a power struggle with the judiciary that culminated in his declaration of a state of emergency in November. He purged the Supreme Court, which had been due to rule on his eligibility as president.

Since the elections, Musharraf has taken a back seat in national affairs, but that has not dampened calls for his ouster.

The Nation newspaper said that by delaying his departure, Musharraf would "only add to the number of his opponents and make them increasingly determined."

The Daily Times, which has generally cautioned against the new government seeking confrontation with Musharraf, said the president's fate hung "in the balance" and advised him to resign.

"The issue is not so much about Musharraf going. That's a given now," said Nasim Zehra, a fellow of Harvard University's Asia Center. "It's how best his departure can be effected so it's without major confrontation or chaos and with some of his respect intact."

Western governments, even the U.S., are adjusting to the new political reality in Pakistan in which the civilian administration is calling the shots. Diplomats in Islamabad appear less concerned about Musharraf leaving than the continuing political instability.

"If Musharraf did go, our bilateral relationship would remain strong," said one diplomat who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "If he does go, we'd like it to be a graceful exit ... For all his faults, he does care about Pakistan."