Image: Pakistani Shiite Muslims carry a dead body of their relative killed in a suicide bombing
Naveed Sultan  /  AP
Shiite Muslims carry the body of a relative killed in a suicide bombing outside the emergency gate of a hospital in Pakistan's volatile northwest.
updated 8/19/2008 10:51:25 AM ET 2008-08-19T14:51:25

Leaders of Pakistan's ruling coalition met Tuesday to discuss who should succeed Pervez Musharraf as president, while a bombing outside a hospital and clashes with militants killed dozens and underscored the challenges facing the country.

The potentially divisive issues on the agenda include what to do with Musharraf after nearly nine years in power and how to restore judges fired by the former leader in a desperate attempt to cling to power.

The retired army general resigned Monday in the face of impeachment threats from the fragile ruling coalition, which is packed with his foes. He is believed to be in his army-guarded residence near the capital, Islamabad.

How the government deals with his succession — and whether it leads to a power struggle — is a looming question at a critical time. The militant threat is spreading in Pakistan's northwest, but the country also faces soaring inflation, chronic power shortages and a host of other economic problems.

'No deal'
Law Minister Farooq Naek said Tuesday that the government had not struck an immunity deal with Musharraf, though supporters and foes suggested he had sought guarantees that he would not face criminal prosecution or be forced into exile.

"There is no deal with the president, and he had himself resigned," Naek told reporters.

Musharraf did not specify his plans during his emotional farewell speech on Monday, saying only that his future was in the hands of the people. But local media reports have suggested he might leave the country for security reasons — he is despised by Islamist militants — and is widely unpopular among ordinary Pakistanis.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States were being discussed as potential havens.

"He should not be allowed to leave," said Sadiqul Farooq, spokesman for the coalition's second-largest party, which has accused the former president of treason. "He should be tried for his crimes."

Pakistan's president is elected by lawmakers, a process that is supposed to be completed within 30 days.

Analysts say earlier infighting over Musharraf's future and the mechanics of bringing back judges he sacked late last year had distracted the government from tackling important issues.

"The coalition will now have to apply themselves because they will have no excuse," said Talat Masood, a prominent political commentator. "The problems and challenges the country faces are enormous and they cannot afford to lose any further time."

Some ordinary Pakistanis doubted Tuesday that the government would measure up.

"Yesterday they fired gun shots in the air to celebrate Musharraf's resignation. That seems crazy to me," said Zubair Khan, a 25-year-old motorcycle mechanic.

"People do not realize that they (rulers) have no spirit to serve the people," he said. "At the end of the day, they stuff their foreign bank accounts with all the looted money they earn while in power."

Musharraf seized control of the government in a 1999 coup and dominated Pakistan for years, supporting the U.S. in the war on terror. Pakistanis blamed rising violence in the country on his alliance with Washington.

For many, the final straw came last year when Musharraf imposed emergency rule and sacked dozens of judges who could challenge his rule — one of the key topics facing ruling coalition leaders on Tuesday.

The two sides have differed over the mechanism of restoring the judges, especially the deposed Supreme Court chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry.

The Pakistan Peoples Party, headed by Asif Ali Zardari has so far refused to say that all should be reinstated immediately.

But former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, demanded Tuesday that Chaudhry and all others be "restored within the next 48 hours," said Farooq, the spokesman.

Taliban-backed insurgency
Sharif and senior party lieutenants abruptly left a meeting with Zardari on Tuesday without announcing any progress.

Musharraf's rivals won February parliamentary elections, largely sidelining him while clamoring for him to quit. They announced an impeachment campaign earlier this month, leading Musharraf to ultimately calculate that he could not remain in power.

One of the biggest challenges ahead is how to deal with an al-Qaida and Taliban-backed insurgency in Pakistan's volatile northwest as well as in neighboring Afghanistan.

200,000 displaced
A military operation against insurgents in the Bajur tribal region has reportedly killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000 in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, police said security forces backed by helicopter gunships and artillery pounded targeted insurgents in Bajur, killing 11 suspected militants and five civilians over a 24-hour period.

Security forces stepped up the shelling after militants attacked a paramilitary post at Mamad Gatt near the Afghan border, said Fazal Rabbi, a local police commander. He said he did not know if any troops were killed.

Separately, government official Jamil Khan said 13 militants and five troops died Tuesday in a clash at a fort in the Nawagai area of Bajur.

Another 23 people were killed and 15 wounded in violence that officials said appeared to be sectarian — a bombing outside the emergency gate of a hospital in the northwest that was crowded with Shiite Muslim mourners.

The blast occurred amid an ongoing military offensive in a nearby tribal region that has left hundreds dead and spurred promises of militant revenge.

An Associated Press reporter at the scene of Dera Ismail Khan District Hospital saw 18 bodies on the ground. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the explosion.

"We are not sure whether it's a suicide blast," police inspector Salahuddin Kundi said.

The country's tribal regions along the Afghan border in particular are considered havens for Taliban and al-Qaida-linked insurgents, many of whom are believed involved in attacks on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Suicide attackers target hospital


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