Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced his resignation Monday to avoid impeachment charges, nearly nine years after the key U.S. ally in its campaign against terrorism took power in a coup.
An emotional Musharraf said he wanted to spare the country from a perilous impeachment battle and that he was satisfied that all he had done "was for the people and for the country."
"I hope the nation and the people will forgive my mistakes," Musharraf said in a televised address, much of which was devoted to defending his record and refuting criticisms.
Musharraf said he will turn in his resignation to the National Assembly speaker on Monday but it was not immediately clear whether it would become effective the same day. The chairman of Pakistan's Senate, Mohammedmian Soomro, will take over as acting president when Musharraf steps down, Law Minister Farooq Naek said.
It also was not clear whether Musharraf would stay in Pakistan.
With Musharraf's utility fading, Western concerns appeared less interested with his ultimate fate than about how the clamor was affecting the halting efforts of the new civilian government against terrorism and the gathering economic woes.
President Bush stressed the importance of U.S.-Pakistan relationship in a statement by the White House after Musharraf announced his resignation.
"President Bush is committed to a strong Pakistan that continues its efforts to strengthen democracy and fight terror," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
The spokesman said Bush appreciates Musharraf's efforts "in the democratic transition of Pakistan as well as his commitment to fighting al-Qaida and extremist groups."
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised Musharraf as “a friend to the United States and one of the world’s most committed partners in the war against terrorism and extremism.”
In Pakistan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said leaders of the ruling coalition would discuss later Monday whether to prosecute Musharraf in court on charges that that were being planned for the impeachment process.
'Victory of democratic forces'
Musharraf's political foes celebrated.
"It is a victory of democratic forces," Information Minister Sherry Rehman said. "Today the shadow of dictatorship, that has prevailed for long over this country, that chapter has been closed."
Musharraf dominated Pakistan for years after seizing power in a 1999 military coup, making the country a key strategic ally of the United States by supporting the war on terror. But his popularity at home sank over the years.
Many Pakistanis blame the rising militant violence in their country on Musharraf's alliance with the United States. His reputation suffered blows in 2007 when he ousted dozens of judges and imposed emergency rule. His rivals won February parliamentary elections and have since sought his ouster, announcing impeachment plans earlier this month.
Musharraf, who has been largely sidelined since his rivals came to power, had resisted the mounting calls to quit, even after the coalition finalized impeachment charges against him and threatened to send a motion to Parliament later this week.
The charges were expected to include violating the constitution and gross misconduct, likely in connection with the ouster of the judges and the declaration of emergency rule.
In announcing he would quit after all, Musharraf mentioned the many problems facing Pakistan, including its sinking economy. He said his opponents were wrong to blame him for the mounting difficulties. "I pray the government stops this down-sliding and take the country out of this crisis," he said.
Allies and rivals of the president said talks had been under way to get him to step down by possibly granting him legal immunity from future prosecution. The second biggest party in the government has said he should be tried for treason, which carries a maximum punishment of death.
In Kabul, the U.S.-backed Afghan government welcomed Musharraf's resignation, saying he "was not someone good for Afghanistan" and his departure will have a positive effect on the region.
Afghanistan has accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency of being behind an April assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai and the July bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 60 people.
Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, reiterated a standing Afghan government demand that Pakistan's military intelligence service cease its activities in Afghanistan.
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary said that Musharraf was an ally of the United States in name only. He said Afghanistan wants a Pakistani president that pursues peace by his actions, and not only through words.
Musharraf "was not someone good for Afghanistan," said Bashary. "We hope that someone good will replace him."
Speculation over next leader
Who will ultimately succeed Musharraf is an open question. There has been speculation that both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, the leaders of the two main parties are interested in the role.
But the ruling coalition has sought to strip the presidency of many of its powers. Sharif spokesman Saiqul Farooq recently dismissed the idea that his boss wants the job because the presidency would likely be reduced to a ceremonial position.
Qureshi would not say whether Musharraf might be granted a "safe exit" — speculation has focused on whether he might go into exile in Saudi Arabia or Turkey — or dragged through the courts.
"That is a decision that has to be taken by the democratic leadership," Qureshi, who is from the main ruling Pakistan People's Party, told Dawn News television. The leaders would assess the speech and the political situation, he said.