ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Negotiations between the Pakistani government and President Pervez Musharraf, aimed at securing his resignation before impeachment, are stalling, with only days left before proceedings begin in parliament, according to politicians involved in the talks.
The coalition government had hoped to pressure the president to quit before the messy and risky impeachment process starts. American and British diplomats also have tried to mediate a compromise to allow Musharraf a safe exit. Once a motion is moved in parliament, which is scheduled for early next week, it will be difficult for Pakistan's unsteady coalition government to let him go, leaving perhaps 48 hours to reach a deal.
In what's turning out to be the former army chief's last stand, Musharraf is refusing to go down without a fight. He's insisting that he receive immunity from prosecution and that he'll live in Pakistan, conditions that are hard for the government to meet, officials in the coalition government said.
"We're hitting a wall now and we're so close" to impeachment proceedings, said one senior member of the coalition, speaking anonymously because of the sensitivity of the issue. "It's this commando thing of his. His living here would be like a red rag to a bull. He wants to be photographed playing golf and taking it easy."
In Washington, the White House, which has issued staunch proclamations of support for Musharraf, seemed on Friday to back away from its closest South Asian ally.
"We've seen the press reports you're referring to, but these are all matters for the Pakistani political system and for the Pakistanis to deal with," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "We certainly hope that any actions that they take are consistent with the rule of law and constitutional principles, but I want to be clear these are matters for the Pakistanis to determine."
While an exit deal negotiated in Pakistan is still the most likely outcome, Musharraf is holding out for a better agreement and the talks are going down to the wire. The president's spokesman consistently has insisted that he has no intention of resigning.
The coalition government wants Musharraf to leave Pakistan, for at least a year or two, until emotions cool, according to officials close to the negotiations. In particular, Nawaz Sharif, a coalition leader who was thrown out of office by the military coup that Musharraf staged in 1999, would find it personally and politically difficult to have the president remain in the country and immune from prosecution.
The president's private home, a mansion that's under construction, is in an upscale neighborhood just outside Islamabad, so he'd be a constant presence.
"Basically Musharraf is being stubborn. The two sides are playing brinkmanship," said Najam Sethi, the editor of Pakistan's newspaper Daily Times. "Nawaz Sharif is sitting there, sharpening his knife."
Musharraf has offered to leave Pakistan for some time, but only after three to six months. He's adamant that, unlike Sharif and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, he won't be seen fleeing the country as soon as he's out of office, a friend of the president said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he isn't authorized to talk to journalists.
The president's legal adviser, Abdul Hafeez Pirzada, went on national television to suggest that the impeachment proceedings would drag on for months. Musharraf is entitled to defend himself, to have lawyers represent him and to call witnesses, he said.
"The president has all the options, constitutional and political," said Pirzada. "All institutions will be seriously damaged (by impeachment), perhaps beyond repair."
The president's aides boasted that he'd defend himself in the proceedings, not quit. Sharif appears keen to humiliate the president with the impeachment, but the senior member of the coalition, the Pakistan People's Party, wants to avoid a prolonged trial. The army, Pakistan's most powerful institution, has said that it will stay out of politics for now, but it's likely to oppose impeachment proceedings against a former army chief. Musharraf was the army chief for almost the entire time he was president.
"He (Musharraf) may think it is better to go down as president and hope the army bails him out," said Ikram Sehgal, a political analyst and former army colleague of the president. "This situation is shot with a lot of danger. It's not just him in the dock. The army will be in the dock."
It's unclear where Musharraf would go. The United States, Turkey and Saudi Arabia had been the favorite possibilities but it's now being suggested that Britain might take him in.
Western diplomats have attempted to intervene on his behalf, and it was the Saudis' turn to try to persuade the government to go for a resignation deal Friday. The Saudi Arabian intelligence chief, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, reportedly was in Pakistan for talks with the coalition leaders and the president.
The government said Friday that the "charge sheet," the dossier of accusations against the president, was now complete and was at the Law Ministry for legal wording. The document wasn't released. The two reasons for impeachment under the constitution are subversion of the constitution and gross misconduct. Framing charges around alleged abrogation of the constitution could open a minefield, as the Supreme Court later sanctioned constitutional changes that Musharraf made. As a result, analysts said, the government might go for gross misconduct.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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