Bhutto's party to take on Musharraf in Pakistan vote
September 25, 2007
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Pakistani ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, vowing to restore democracy and combat extremism, said Tuesday her party would field a presidential candidate against General Pervez Musharraf.
Bhutto said that under President Musharraf, Pakistan had become "the petri dish of the international extremist movement" and that only a new government with broad support could root out Islamic militancy.
Fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda "requires a national effort that can only flow from legitimate elections," she said on Washington's Capitol Hill, appealing to the United States to drop its deep-pocketed backing for Musharraf.
With Musharraf battling for his political survival, the US embassy in Islamabad issued a rare statement on Monday criticizing the arrest of several opposition leaders as "extremely disturbing."
Bhutto, who is planning to return home from self-exile next month, said that her Pakistan People's Party was nominating one of its two vice chairmen, Makhdoom Amin Fahim, to stand against Musharraf in October 6 polls.
"We are doing this because we want to put ourselves in a better position to have more options. The issue of General Musharraf's legitimacy is foremost in the minds of Pakistani people," she told the Middle East Institute.
Bhutto, who has been locked in on-off talks with Musharraf from her exile in Dubai and London, said that if Pakistan's Supreme Court rejects his nomination but still allows the election to go ahead, any official candidate has a chance.
"So as a precaution, we are filing our candidate," she said, while noting that Musharraf has enough support in Pakistan's current parliament to win.
The US State Department said that it agreed with the stated goal of Musharraf, the pivotal ally of Washington's anti-terrorism struggle in Afghanistan, of developing Pakistan as a moderate and democratic state.
"For us, though, ultimately, the choice of who's going to lead Pakistan needs to be by the Pakistani people," spokesman Tom Casey said.
"And that's why these elections are so crucial and why they need to be free, fair and transparent, and have broad participation from all the relevant factions."
Musharraf, 64, said last week that he would stand down from the army if re-elected. The poll will be conducted by the outgoing parliament and the former commando would then be sworn in as civilian leader of the nuclear-armed Islamic republic before his current term expires on November 15.
But opposition parties argue that it is illegal for Musharraf to run for president while still army chief. The Supreme Court is due to decide on opposition petitions against the elections later this week.
"It is very clear that if not elected he will remain chief of army staff," Attorney General Malik Mohammad Qayyum told the court Tuesday.
The statement was a reminder that the embattled Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, still has the powerful army to fall back on if he fails to secure another term.
Bhutto, who was twice prime minister in the 1990s, said she expected a warm welcome from supporters when she flies into the teeming city of Karachi on October 18.
"I hope for the best, and prepare for the worst," Bhutto said. "I'm returning to Pakistan on October 18 to coalesce the forces of moderation against extremism."
Bhutto also said Tuesday that if returned to power, she would allow UN inspectors but not Western powers to question Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear bomb.
Musharraf has refused to grant any access to US officials eager to question the nuclear scientist since he admitted to passing atomic secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea in a televised confession in February 2004.
Khan was pardoned by Musharraf later that month and has lived under virtual house arrest in Islamabad and makes no public appearances.
"Many Pakistanis are cynical about whether AQ Khan could have done this without any official sanction," Bhutto told the Middle East Institute, promising to hold parliamentary hearings on the question if re-elected prime minister.
"While we do not agree at this stage to have any Western access to AQ Khan, we do believe that IAEA... would have the right to question AQ Khan," she said, referring to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.
Also See: Benazir to give IAEA access to A.Q. Khan: Dawn