Musharraf being nudged to quit before impeachment

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Americans and British diplomats are trying to encourage a quick exit from office for Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, a staunch Western anti-terrorism ally, before he suffers the disgrace of impeachment, Pakistani officials said Wednesday.

In recent days, Musharraf has seen a collapse in support, as three of Pakistan's four provincial parliaments overwhelmingly have approved resolutions that declare him unfit for office. The fourth is expected to follow shortly.

The provincial votes were symbolic, but early next week the formal prosecution will begin with an impeachment motion in the national parliament. It's now clear that Pakistan's ruling coalition has the two-thirds majority needed to impeach Musharraf.

Musharraf, a former army chief who took power after a military coup in 1999, became an international linchpin in the United States' fight against al Qaida after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

His departure probably would trigger a fundamental shift in Pakistan's approach to militants, and some are lamenting it.

Sheik Waqas Akram, a pro-Musharraf member of the national parliament, said: "This is a man who stood up against al Qaida. Who will face al Qaida after Musharraf? Certainly not this coalition."

The government, not the president, runs policy under Pakistan's political system, following the return of democracy after elections in February. The coalition government has advocated a controversial new strategy of peace negotiations with Islamic militants.

If Musharraf wants to quit, said government officials, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, he must do so before parliament starts the impeachment proceedings, leaving him just a few days.

"We're being told (by Western envoys) that it's not going to bring more stability to have a long trial. And that it is in the interests of stability for him to exit," said one highly placed coalition politician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

In a speech Wednesday, Musharraf showed no sign of buckling, saying, "If we want to address our economic and terrorism crisis, we need political stability in Pakistan. Political stability comes from a reconciliatory approach, not a confrontationist approach."

The extremist threat to Pakistan was underlined Wednesday with a suicide bomb in the eastern city of Lahore, aimed at a line of police officers. At least five were killed and 25 injured. Separately, a U.S. missile strike on a suspected militant training camp in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal area killed a reported nine fighters.

Western diplomats have sought to convince the coalition government that impeachment would further undermine the stability of crisis-racked, nuclear-armed Pakistan and that it should offer Musharraf a "graceful exit" with immunity from prosecution, Pakistani officials said.

A senior Pakistani official made it clear that Musharraf hasn't sought exile abroad. The United States and Britain "have withdrawn their support for Musharraf and they don't intend to get involved in the nitty-gritty" of the negotiations over his departure, he said.

"But they don't want him humiliated or dragged through the streets," said the official, who asked not to be identified because he isn't authorized to discuss the matter.

Mark Lyall Grant, the director of political affairs at the British Foreign Office, met Tuesday night with Asif Ali Zardari, the leader of the Pakistan People's Party, one of the two big parties in the coalition.

American diplomats also are engaged in a hectic round of meetings. Ambassador Anne Patterson held talks Tuesday with Nisar Ali Khan, a senior member of Nawaz Sharif's party, the other main group in the coalition.

An official in Sharif's party, who asked not be named because he, too, wasn't authorized to talk to the press, said Patterson's message was "give Musharraf safe passage."

Spokesmen for the British and U.S. missions denied that they were seeking to interfere in the impeachment. They declined to comment on whether the meetings took place. Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the American Embassy, said: "We have consistently said that this is an internal matter for the Pakistani people."

U.S. officials are said to be concerned that impeaching Musharraf would poison relations between the new government and Pakistan's powerful military.

"There is a link between Musharraf and the army, so humiliating him is like humiliating the army," said Daniel Markey, a former State Department official who's now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, a research center. "The (Bush) administration would have much preferred to see a workable political arrangement, between Musharraf and the government, not another looming transition."

The Pakistan People's Party is willing to allow the president to resign and retreat from public life, party officials said. However, the party of Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister by Musharraf's coup, seems determined to prosecute the president.

"We've had enough of dictators," said Ahsan Iqbal, one of the leaders of Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N. "Whoever abrogates the constitution must be punished or we will never stop these dictators usurping power here."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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