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Musharraf Poised to Keep Military Post Despite Earlier Promise - 2004-09-16

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has indicated he is reconsidering a promise to relinquish his second post as military chief later this year. The president's political allies have issued statements supporting the move, suggesting an official policy change is on the way.

Last week, President Musharraf told a local television interviewer that most Pakistanis want him to serve as both president and general.

Then on Wednesday, his information minister ignited a brief controversy by announcing that the president had definitely decided to retain both posts.

The minister retracted that statement Thursday, saying he only "hoped" the president would retain his military position, but the remark fueled speculation that a decision had already been made.

Last year, Mr. Musharraf promised a hard-line Islamic coalition that he would give up his military post by the end of 2004. In return, the coalition backed a controversial constitutional amendment that sharply increased Mr. Musharraf's control over the government.

Critics of the president say his dual role is forbidden under the revised constitution, and that he should fulfill the promise he made to the nation.

Nisar Ali Khan, a senior opposition leader, has vowed to block any attempt to allow the president to remain in uniform.

"For the general to go back on his commitment, I think it speaks of a disaster waiting to happen for this country," said Mr. Khan.

A majority of the lawmakers in the North West Frontier Province have also demanded the president give up his military title. The ruling party in that province, which borders Afghanistan, is headed by an alliance of Islamic parties strongly opposed to Mr. Musharraf's anti-terror policies.

But Pakistan's Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has dismissed the opposition's arguments, and says it is in the national interest that the president remain in control of the army.

Mr. Aziz says any final decision on this issue will have to be made by the president.

Leaders of the pro-Musharraf ruling party say such a decision would help the president improve security and protect the economy, and lawmakers in populous Punjab Province cited security concerns and the president's campaign against Islamic militants in the north in asking him to retain his military post.

As an army general, Mr. Musharraf seized control of Pakistan in a bloodless coup in 1999. Since then, he has struggled to balance demands for democracy with concerns over security and Pakistan's part in the U.S.-led war on terror.