ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The leaders of Pakistan's ruling coalition Thursday said they'd impeach President Pervez Musharraf, a move that could ignite a political firestorm even as the government is under mounting American pressure to crack down on Islamic insurgents allied with al Qaida.
A political battle could push nuclear-armed Pakistan into protracted turmoil; prevent its shaky civilian government from moving against Pakistani Islamic insurgents and other militants who are attacking U.S., NATO and government forces in Afghanistan; and even jeopardize vital U.S. supply lines through Pakistan to Afghanistan.
What happens is likely to hinge on whether the Pakistani Army backs its unpopular former chief of staff if he refuses to resign and dissolves the parliament, or whether the generals persuade Musharraf to go quietly and the government to leave him alone if he does.
The Army's decision, in turn, could depend on the position of the Bush administration, which has backed Musharraf as an "indispensable ally" in fighting terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, but is anxious to help stabilize the feuding civilian coalition that trounced Musharraf's political allies in February elections.
"There are elements within the U.S. administration who would be very nervous about Musharraf leaving the scene, as they think the civilians are not in control of the army and ISI (Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency)," said Lisa Curtis, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
"GHQ (the general headquarters of the Pakistani army) or Washington are the only two centers of power that can bail him (Musharraf) out," agreed Rashed Rahman, a Pakistani political analyst.
Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party and the husband of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif, the head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, announced Thursday after three days of talks that an impeachment motion would soon be brought before parliament.
"The coalition leaders believe that it has become imperative to move for impeachment," Zardari told a news conference. "We have the votes and the political will."
Zardari and Sharif were vague about the grounds for impeachment, blaming Musharraf for the country's mounting economic crisis and severe shortage of power.
However, they also mentioned that the new parliament hasn't taken a vote of confidence in Musharraf and accused him of interfering in the running of the government. Under the Constitution, they'd need to prove gross negligence or subversion of the Constitution.
Zardari and Sharif also announced an agreement to restore scores of judges, including the former chief justice of the Supreme Court, whom Musharraf ousted in November, to prevent them from blocking his disputed re-election to a five-year term while he was still Army chief of staff.
It wasn't clear that the ruling coalition has the two-thirds majority of a joint session of the assembly and Senate that would be needed to impeach Musharraf.
However, in an indication that he takes the threat seriously, Musharraf canceled a trip to Friday's opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing, and spent the day with legal and other advisers.
Musharraf is widely despised for his close ties to the Bush administration, as well as his ouster last year of the judges, the detention of thousands of government critics and a brief declaration of emergency rule.
He's privately made it clear that he'd fight any effort to impeach him.
"I'm not afraid, I have not learnt fear," Musharraf said in a recent speech.
Musharraf has a largely ceremonial role under the Constitution. But he has the power to sack the parliament, which he could use before the assembly can consider the impeachment motion.
Zardari warned Musharraf against such a move, saying, "If he does it, it will be his last verdict against (the) people, against (the) people's mandate and against Pakistan."
Meanwhile, the real reasons why Zardari and Sharif put aside months of wrangling over Musharraf's fate and the restoration of the judges may be less clear than their public pronouncements Thursday suggested.
Zardari — who up to now has been wary of confronting Musharraf — may have been spooked by rumors that Musharraf was secretly plotting against the government.
"If they hadn't moved against Musharraf now, there's no question in my mind that he may have moved against them," said Rahman, the Pakistani political analyst.
(Shah, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Islamabad. Landay reported from Washington.)
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