ISLAMABAD — Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf bowed to domestic and international pressure and quit Monday, but his departure could trigger further instability for the nuclear-armed U.S. ally if the country's fractious coalition government can't hold together without its common enemy.
Washington benefited from having former Army chief Musharraf as a one-stop-shop since Sept. 11 for winning Pakistan's co-operation in the fight against al Qaida and the Taliban. After the restoration of democracy with elections in February, however, the new civilian government began to negotiate with Islamic extremists and moved to impeaching Musharraf.
U.S. and British officials worked behind the scenes to bolster the Pakistani president, who seized power in a 1999 military coup but removed his Army uniform late last year. They abandoned that effort in recent weeks in the hope that heading off Musharraf's impeachment would encourage the coalition to address Pakistan's mounting security and economic problems.
A grim-faced Musharraf appeared live on national television and delivered an impassioned defense of his record that lasted more than an hour, saying he was resigning for the sake of the nation. As he was finishing, his voice trembled and he appeared to have tears in his eyes. A final "God bless Pakistan" ended almost nine years in power.
"If I was doing this just for myself, I might have chosen a different course, but I put Pakistan first, as always," said the president, wearing a Western suit and tie but speaking in Urdu, the national language.
The Bush administration, which since 9/11 has based its Pakistan policy largely on Musharraf, now must chart a different course at a time when the Islamic insurgencies in Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, economic unrest in Pakistan and tensions with Pakistan's arch-foe India are all on the rise.
Despite the administration's bet on Musharraf, Islamabad's role in the war on terror has been ambivalent at best, with evidence that members of the country's security and intelligence forces have been secretly backing Taliban militants. The Army decides the country's policy toward its tribal areas, which border Afghanistan and have become a refuge for Taliban and al Qaida militants, and its broader security policies.
"If this continues, I strongly suspect that Pakistan will move from the ally category to the foe category," said Christine Fair, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp, a private U.S. research organization. "The impeachment (threat) is a very necessary step to restoring the constitution and getting civilian control over the military."
In Washington, President Bush heaped praise on Musharraf Monday but was quick to underline his commitment to the new government.
"President Bush appreciates President Musharraf's efforts in the democratic transition of Pakistan, as well as his commitment to fighting al Qaida and extremist groups," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "We're confident that we will maintain a good relationship with the government of Pakistan."
While the prospect of impeaching Musharraf brought the country's largely dysfunctional civilian coalition together, analysts said there now could be a tussle over who'd succeed Musharraf as president and whether judges he fired would be restored. Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N wants the judiciary reinstated, but Asif Zardari, the leader of the rival Pakistan People's Party, is thought to remain reticent.
"There's no stable settlement. These two guys (Sharif and Zardari) will now start slugging it out," said Najam Sethi, editor of Pakistan's Daily Times newspaper. "The political interests of the two are diametrically opposed."
Both U.S. presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, saw the Musharraf resignation as a positive step for stability in Pakistan. If elected, both said they'd work with the new government.
Obama said: "I hope all of Pakistan's friends will now seize the opportunity created by Musharraf's exit to focus on the urgent issues of today: confronting the threat of extremist violence, dealing with food and energy shortages, and helping the Pakistani people build a stable, secure, democratic future."
"The situation in Pakistan's frontier regions requires immediate and continued attention, and I hope that the elections for President Musharraf's successor will serve to reconcile the Pakistani people behind a leader who can solidify their government internally," said McCain.
The coalition government led by Sharif and Zardari staged a bloodless coup in a country that's been dominated for years by the Army, announcing less than two weeks ago that it planned to impeach Musharraf.
Raza Rabbani, a leading member of the Pakistan People's Party, said: "This is the first time in Pakistan's political history where you have the people winning against establishment institutions."
Most members of the coalition government didn't want to go through the trauma of impeachment, hoping that the threat of prosecution would be enough to convince the president to go. That strategy proved successful two hours before parliament was due to meet to start the prosecution process.
Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, said: "Today parliament has become sovereign. We can hold our head up high in the world and say that we, too, are a democracy."
It had been predicted that Musharraf would step down as a part of a Western-mediated agreement with the government that would grant him immunity from prosecution. He also wanted to be able to remain in Pakistan.
"I don't want anything from anybody. I have no interest. I leave my future in the hands of the nation and people," Musharraf said. "Let them be the judges. Let them do justice."
While there seemed to be no formal agreement, two politicians close to the negotiations, who couldn't be named due to the sensitivity of the subject, said that Musharraf received assurances from the Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition. They said the Army has guaranteed those assurances of protection.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent in Pakistan.)
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