Musharraf-Bhutto Accord May Provoke Pakistan's Religious Groups
By Khalid Qayum and Khaleeq Ahmed; Bloomberg.com, August 9, 2007
Aug. 10 (Bloomberg) -- A power-sharing agreement between Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto, the main opposition leader, may provoke religious parties and extremists in the world's second-largest Muslim nation.
Bhutto, who served two terms as prime minister, is trying to reach an agreement with Musharraf under which she returns from nine years of self exile to head the government while Musharraf retains the post of president.
``If Bhutto is returning with a commitment of moderation and with a strategy to fight against extremism, the militant groups backed by Islamic parties will hit back strongly,'' said Ishtiaq Ahmed, an associate professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.
Musharraf is facing the biggest challenge to his rule since he took power in a military coup in 1999 as opposition parties protest his plan for a second five-year term and Islamic groups denounce his support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. He rejected imposing a state of emergency to quell unrest, saying yesterday he wants national elections held next year.
The U.S. expects Musharraf to ensure the ballot is ``free and fair,'' President George W. Bush said at a news conference in Washington yesterday.
Musharraf, 63, and Bhutto, 54, who leads Pakistan Peoples Party, met in Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates, on July 27 to discuss a political accord, according to Tariq Azeem, the deputy information minister.
Bhutto ``may have political differences with Musharraf, but her party has always supported the counter-terrorism moves by Musharraf,'' said Ahmed. ``Her strategy to counter extremism may be different from Musharraf. The goal will be the same of rooting out extremism and of marginalizing the religious parties.''
Stability in Pakistan will ``remain elusive'' as long as there is no political consensus on how to tackle extremism, said Hassan Abbas, a fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said in an e-mail. News of the Musharraf-Bhutto deal has ``disappointed liberal forces in Pakistan and it will negatively impact on Bhutto's vote bank,'' he said.
Security forces last month stormed Islamabad's Red Mosque to end a standoff with clerics, who wanted to impose Islamic law in the capital. About 75 pro-Taliban gunmen occupying the site were killed.
The operation sparked suicide bombings and attacks across Pakistan that killed more than 160 soldiers and civilians.
Abu Yahya al-Libi, an al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan, last month called on Pakistani Muslims to overthrow Musharraf, calling him a ``dirty tyrant'' and condemning his support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Pakistan has a population of 165 million people, 97 percent of them Muslim. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation, with 234 million people.
Musharraf's ``shift toward Bhutto is natural as he was earlier perceived as taking strength from the radical Islamic parties to perpetuate his illegitimate rule,'' Ahmed said. ``That didn't work in the long term.''
While the U.S. presses Musharraf to confront al-Qaeda gunmen sheltering in tribal areas, Bush is under pressure from some members of the U.S. Congress to cultivate alternatives to the Pakistani leader.
U.S. intelligence officials said in a report published July 17 that Musharraf's anti-terrorism strategy is failing and al- Qaeda has established a ``safe haven'' along Pakistan's mountainous frontier with Afghanistan.
``We spend a lot of time with the leadership in Pakistan talking about what we will do with actionable intelligence'' to ``bring top al-Qaeda targets to justice,'' Bush said yesterday.
Pakistan, which denies resurgence of al-Qaeda and Taliban on its territory, has deployed more than 80,000 soldiers along the 2,430-kilometer (1,510-mile) border.
Demand for Musharraf's removal escalated after he suspended the country's top judge Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry on March 9 on charges of misusing his authority. A 13-member panel of Supreme Court judges July 20 reinstated Chaudhry.
Musharraf declared himself president in 2001 and held a restricted general election the next year. He was indirectly elected president by the legislature and state assemblies three years later.
The general elections weren't considered free because of the absences of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto. Musharraf sent Sharif into exile in 2000. Bhutto went into self- imposed exile in 1998 to avoid facing corruption charges.
``A Musharraf-Bhutto alliance will be beneficial to end terrorism in the long-term, though in the near future, it may not have an impact,'' said Pervez Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute. ``We may see political stability in near future, isolating the extremist groups. To end terrorism all the political parties will have to work effectively.''
To contact the reporters on this story: Khalid Qayum in Islamabad, Pakistan at firstname.lastname@example.org ; Khaleeq Ahmed