Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has tightened his control over the country's nuclear weapons, anchoring in law a commission responsible for overseeing the nuclear arsenal and preventing further proliferation.
Opposition leaders said on Saturday the move gives Musharraf unwarranted powers that they will try to take away from him after Pakistan's fraught parliamentary elections on Jan. 8.
Musharraf issued an ordinance on Friday that gives a firmer legal footing to the National Command Authority (NCA), the oversight commission that includes top civilian and military officials.
Chaired by Musharraf, the NCA has been in place since he created it by executive order seven years ago. But only with the ordinance, do the commission's powers become enshrined in law.
The ordinance reinforces the NCA's "complete command and control" over all aspects of the nuclear program and grants the chairman "all the powers and functions of the authority."
The ordinance takes immediate effect, though parliament may choose to review it.
Talat Masood, a military analyst and retired general, said the ordinance gave the NCA considerable new power to control the activities of current and former employees of the nuclear program. The ordinance says anyone breaching national security can be punished with a jail term of up to 25 years.
"It has become much more independent now and autonomous," Masood said.
Spokesmen for opposition leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif -- both former prime ministers -- denounced the change as a bid to keep nuclear control in Musharraf's hands and said they hoped lawmakers would put the next prime minister in charge of defense matters including oversight of nuclear weapons.
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto, said the NCA ordinance showed Musharraf "grabbing more and more power."
Bhutto and Sharif have argued in their manifestos for next month's election that nuclear command and control should be overseen by the cabinet's defense committee, chaired by the prime minister.
"The prime minister is answerable before the parliament, so you have some accountability," said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for Sharif, who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup. "But with the president, there is no accountability."
Iqbal accused Musharraf of a ruse to shore up Western support by reminding them of speculation about whether Pakistan's nuclear weapons could ever fall into the hands of Islamic radicals. In the past, Pakistan's nuclear secrets have been leaked to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
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