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Pakistanis Divided on President's Failure to Give Up Military Post - 2004-10-15

A new bill that would allow Pakistan's president to continue serving as head of the military is generating controversy across the country. While opposition parties are furious, the reaction from the military and the general public is more mixed.

Pakistani opposition members in the lower house of Parliament chanted slogans and attempted filibusters Thursday as the ruling party voted to approve the new bill.

The awkwardly-named "President to Hold Another Office Act" now heads to the upper house, where its passage is seen as a mere formality.

The bill sets the stage for President Pervez Musharraf to continue serving as chief of the military, despite his previous agreement with some political parties to quit the army by the end of the year.

Opposition parties see the presence of a military president as anti-democratic, and have lodged a no-confidence vote against the ruling party's parliamentary speaker in protest.

Talat Masood, a retired general, says the military will probably accept Mr. Musharraf's decision, even though some would have preferred to see him keep his word and step down.

"There would be a mixed reaction. Generally, the military wants change. But it's a disciplined army, and even if they feel that there should have been a change, they will accept it," Mr. Masood said.

He says some top officers believe Mr. Musharraf, whose presidential term runs until 2007, also needs to keep his military credentials in order to remain powerful enough to stamp out extremism, corruption and poverty.

Other officers, he says, would like to see the armed forces less attached to politics and more focused on professionalism.

He says the feeling among ordinary Pakistanis is equally mixed.

Some see Mr. Musharraf, who took power in a bloodless 1999 military coup, as a way out of the cycle of corruption and patronage that plagued previous civilian governments.

But General Masood says the public could react strongly if they believed Mr. Musharraf was abusing his power.

"Our people, by and large, may be uneducated, illiterate, but they have a lot of wisdom in that sense, so I would not underestimate what they are thinking," Mr. Masood says.

General Masood, who met with Mr. Musharraf on the day the act passed the lower house, says the president is still committed to stepping down as military chief eventually.

But, he says, Mr. Musharraf wants to decide on the timing at his own leisure.