Musharraf reluctant to give up role as chief of army staff


Thu, May 24, 2007 - Page 5

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said he was reluctant to accede to growing demands to give up his army post as he seeks a new term as head of state, describing his uniform as "part of my skin."

The BBC's Urdu-language service said it asked Musharraf in an interview on Tuesday which office -- the presidency or chief of army staff -- was more important to him and that he acknowledged he would eventually quit the military.

"But when I have to do it, I will have to think a bit about it. I have always said that I will never violate the Constitution," Musharraf was quoted as saying.

Musharraf seized power in a 1999 coup, denouncing Pakistan's main opposition parties as corrupt and incompetent. He then pushed through a constitutional amendment that exempted him from rules barring the president from holding another office.

Opposition parties insist the exemption expires this year and have used a row over Musharraf's suspension of Pakistan's chief justice to bolster their calls for him to step down.

But Musharraf, who enjoys strong backing from the US for his help against al-Qaeda and who plans to ask lawmakers for a new five-year term this fall, has yet to make his intentions clear.

"The army uniform has become part of my skin. I have been wearing it for 40 to 45 years. It is part of my life. It made me what I am today. Army is my life and blood," Musharraf was quoted as saying.

"I became president because of circumstances," he said.

With parliamentary elections also expected by year-end, Musharraf is urging moderates to join him in countering Islamic extremists who appear to be expanding their influence.

Authorities have been engaged in a four-month confrontation with two radical clerics in Islamabad, whose male and female student followers have launched a campaign of Taliban-style moral policing in the city and kidnapped police officers.

Musharraf defended his decision to negotiate rather than intervene with force, saying radicals at the downtown Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, were armed and that his political opponents would exploit any bloodshed.

"You will say `they got women killed, they got mosques demolished,'" he said. "The opposition also wants me to do this. They will show it on TV. Three women lying dead there in a pool of blood."

Still, he insisted that the standoff, which has prompted authorities to deploy hundreds of armed security forces in capital, "has to be ended."

"Talibanization is not the future of Pakistan. We are an enlightened Islamic state," he said.