Pakistan's new leaders declare 'last day of dictatorship'

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's newly elected National Assembly met for the first time Monday and delivered an immediate rebuff to Pervez Musharraf, setting up a head-on clash between the elected assembly and the unpopular U.S.-backed president.

With the incoming government committed to restoring the judges who were fired by Musharraf and stripping the powers of the presidency, a battle seems inevitable in which Washington may find itself on the losing side. Critics said Musharraf is unwilling to retreat to the figurehead role prescribed for the president in Pakistan's original constitution.

"The conspiracies of the (presidential) palace will be fought with the strength of parliament," said Ahmed Mukhtar, a possible candidate for the post of prime minister from the Pakistan People's Party, just before the assembly met. "We have the numbers to do whatever we want."

The People's Party, which won the most seats in the Feb. 18 election, plans to form a government in the next few days with its traditional rival, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N, in a grand anti-Musharraf alliance. Together, along with two smaller parties, the new government would control two-thirds of the National Assembly. According to Mukhtar, the coalition also will soon control two-thirds of the Senate, due to the defection of Musharraf backers, which would mean that it could impeach Musharraf.

"This is the last day of dictatorship," said Asif Zardari, who succeeded his assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto as head of the People's Party, before the parliament assembled.

In the inaugural session of the National Assembly, elected representatives insisted on taking the oath of office under the constitution that existed before Musharraf suspended it in November and made amendments to secure his power.

The showdown could begin as early as Tuesday when the Supreme Court, now composed of judges who swore allegiance to Musharraf in November, holds a hearing. A confrontation could erupt if the president secures a court order to prevent parliament from reinstating the judges Musharraf ousted.

A movement of Pakistan's lawyers promises to keep up the pressure until dismissed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and some 60 other justices regain their posts.

Over the weekend, the leader of the lawyers, Aitzaz Ahsan, sharply criticized Washington. He said in a speech at forum in Islamabad that he wasn't asking the Bush administration to support the restoration of the judiciary, just to stop working against it. He said the U.S. ambassador had refused to attend the forum.

"Please desist from your hostility towards us," Ahsan said, referring to both the U.S. and British governments.

Speaking at the same forum, Akram Sheikh, a leading lawyer, warned that Musharraf could facing hanging if an independent judiciary is restored.

"If you break the constitution, you must not find your way to the presidency. You must find your way to the gallows," said Sheikh.

The lawyers say that Musharraf subverted the constitution, which is an act of treason and carries the death penalty.

The president's remaining allies in parliament, from the former ruling party, said they'll defend his authority. They still have enough seats in the Senate to block constitutional changes, such as a removal of the clause known as "58(2)B" under which the president can dismiss the government.

Tariq Azim, an former minister who is considered close to the president, said: "We don't believe that impeachment is a solution. ... We feel that 58(2)B is a stabilizing factor. It stops the army taking action (to remove a government) and imposing martial law."

The attitude of the all-powerful army will now be crucial. Musharraf handed over the command of the military in November to Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who has indicated that he'd like to stay out of politics. But some suspect that if Musharraf is threatened by impeachment or a trial for treason, the army might intervene.

In what was interpreted as a warning to the politicians earlier this month, an army statement quoted Kayani as telling his corps commanders that "any kind of schism, at any level, under the circumstances would not be in the larger interest of the nation. ... (I) hope that the army is not dragged into any unnecessary controversy."

(Shah is a special correspondent.)