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Pakistan’s Musharraf, Bhutto hold secret talks

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf held secret talks with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a government minister said Saturday. Media widely reported that the once-bitter rivals had discussed a power-sharing deal.
Pakistan President Musharraf televise address
Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has been beset by problems in recent weeks, facing pressure from political opponents to cede control of the miltary and threats from Islamic extremists. Press Information Department / H / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s suspension of Pakistan’s top judge triggered widespread national protests. His army’s assault on a radical mosque in the capital Islamabad sparked a new surge of Islamic militant violence.

On top of those domestic troubles, Musharraf is also under pressure from his key ally, the United States, which says the Taliban and al-Qaida have been allowed to regroup in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal belt near Afghanistan.

Now, with his grip on power seeming ever more tenuous, Musharraf is turning to a figure from his country’s past in an apparent bid to salvage his political future.

Musharraf held secret talks with opposition leader and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a government minister said Saturday. Media widely reported that the once-bitter rivals discussed a power-sharing deal.

Such an alliance could strengthen Musharraf by bringing the secular, liberal opposition into his government as concerns grow about the rise in Islamic militancy. Analysts said Pakistan’s Western allies would welcome that.

But newspaper and television reports said the talks stalled over Bhutto’s insistence that Musharraf quit his military post if he hopes to remain president.

Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told The Associated Press that the president and Bhutto “held a successful meeting” in the Gulf emirate of Abu Dhabi on Friday. He would not elaborate on the subject of the talks.

Former PM mum on meeting
Bhutto, leader of the secular Pakistan People’s Party, the country’s largest opposition group, told Pakistani television station KTN by phone from London that: “Whatever we have done and are doing it is for democracy and social and economic rights of the people of Pakistan.”

But she repeatedly dodged the question when asked if she had met with Musharraf.

“Let’s talk of something else,” she said.

Musharraf seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and pledged to quickly restore democracy. He is expected to seek re-election when his term expires in October, and he wants the current crop of politicians in federal and provincial assemblies, who supported him five years ago, to vote again.

The opposition says the 2002 elections of those representatives were fixed, and insists that only the lawmakers chosen in parliamentary elections due at the end of 2007 should have the right to elect the next head of state. Observers say the new crop of lawmakers may be less inclined to support Musharraf.

Musharraf clings to military post
The opposition also says Musharraf must relinquish his post as army chief. But he has been unwilling to quit the army, the main source of his power, fueling disquiet about military rule.

Bhutto insisted Saturday that Musharraf must quit the military.

“Our stand is that, and I stick to my stand, that we do not accept President Musharraf in uniform,” she said.

Bhutto has also said Musharraf must promise to give up the power to fire the prime minister and dissolve parliament.

Widespread protests against Musharraf began after he suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in October. The government insists it received a string of credible complaints that the judge had abused his office. Critics accuse the government of trying to remove an independent-minded judge ahead of possible legal challenges to Musharraf’s continued rule.

Red Mosque siege still being felt
Weakening Musharraf’s hold on power is militant violence that has surged since an army assault on the pro-Taliban Red Mosque, which killed at least 102 people this month. A controversial security deal with tribal leaders on the Afghan border, meant to contain Taliban and al-Qaida forces, collapsed in the face of violence that flared in reaction to the mosque raid.

Musharraf also faces rising criticism from Washington that al-Qaida and the Taliban have been allowed to regroup in Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal belt near Afghanistan.

Pakistan on Saturday condemned U.S. legislation tying American aid to Islamabad’s efforts to stop al-Qaida, the Taliban and other anti-Western extremists from operating in its territory.

The bill approved by the House of Representatives Friday contains measures that “cast a shadow on the existing cooperation between Pakistan and United States,” the Foreign Affairs Ministry said.

U.S. has stake in reported talks
The United States and Britain would welcome a Musharraf-Bhutto deal because it would strengthen Musharraf’s political capital and, therefore, his ability to combat militancy while also pushing the country back toward democracy, said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

“They want to strengthen Musharraf who has been supporting the war on terrorism and his further weakening would damage their cause in Afghanistan,” Rais said. “The second reason is that they want peaceful transition in Pakistan to elected government.”

Back-channel talks between envoys for Musharraf and Bhutto have been reported for months, but any pact faces significant hurdles.

There is a constitutional ban on anyone holding the prime minister’s post more than twice. Bhutto, who served as prime minister once in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, is also wanted on corruption charges that forced her into exile in 1999, the year Musharraf took the reins.

And the two leaders’ relationship could be troubled by Bhutto’s criticism of Musharraf, whom Bhutto has called a dictator.

Bhutto has been positioning herself as a champion of democracy and anti-terrorist campaigner. In an interview with The Associated Press in London earlier this month, she attacked Musharraf’s record of fighting Islamic extremism, saying the government has conceded some power to militant and pro-Taliban groups in parts of the country.

In the latest violence, a suicide bomber blew himself up Friday in a busy market district of Islamabad shortly after police clashed with rock-throwing protesters during the reopening of the Red Mosque. Thirteen people were killed and scores wounded in the blast.