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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 September, 2004, 21:17 GMT 22:17 UK
Minister denies Musharraf U-turn
President Pervez Musharraf
Musharraf has fuelled weeks of speculation over his intentions
Pakistan's information minister has denied that President Pervez Musharraf had resolved to go back on his pledge to stand down as army leader.

The minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, was earlier quoted as saying Mr Musharraf would not be resigning as head of the armed forces as promised.

But hours later, Mr Ahmed issued a clarification, saying he meant to say he hoped Mr Musharraf would stay on.

The issue is due to be debated on Thursday in the national assembly.

Mr Ahmed's original statement came at a news conference in Islamabad on Wednesday night, during which he said "the national situation" required Mr Musharraf to serve both as president of Pakistan and head of its armed forces.

Although Mr Musharraf has promised to stand down as army leader by January, there have been weeks of speculation and rival motions from parliamentary parties over the issue.

Hardline Islamic parties in Pakistan would be angered if Mr Musharraf attempted to backtrack on his pledge, analysts say.

Gen Musharraf came to power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

He claimed this month that 96% of people wanted him to keep his military post.

'Dictator'

The debate over the president's dual role has simmered since parliamentary elections in October 2002.

The president can keep both the offices. There is no constitutional complication
Sheikh Rashid Ahmed

It flared up on Monday when the legislature in eastern Punjab adopted a resolution urging President Musharraf to retain both posts for his "policy against terrorism" and "economic stability".

Hardline Islamic parties responded on Wednesday with a motion in North West Frontier Province calling on him to fulfil his pledge to stand down.

A spokesman for former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's party, Sadique al-Farooq, described him as a dictator.

"His claim that he is a man of his word who fulfils his promises has proven false," he said.

Political deal

The debate on the issue began after the 2002 polls, when opposition groups protested at a change in the constitution that allowed the president to retain both posts.

Rally led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) - part of MMA religious alliance
The Islamic alliance has urged Musharraf to keep his pledge

The president agreed to review the decision and entered a dialogue with an alliance of six Islamic groups.

They agreed not to back a no-confidence motion after President Musharraf said he would step down as army head by 31 December 2004.

The president in return got a constitutional amendment legitimising his military takeover and subsequent actions.

But President Musharraf has said there is nothing in the amendment that bars him from remaining army chief for another five years.

He has cast doubt on his agreement with the Islamic parties, saying they should have voted for him in the no-confidence vote rather than abstaining.

Military man

Analysts say the president may feel his real source of strength lies in commanding the military.

As a purely civilian head he may come under greater pressure from parties to alter his reforms, they say.

His supporters argue he needs to remain in uniform to tackle al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.

The president has continued to build his power base this year.

He effectively removed Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali in June and has installed key ally Shaukat Aziz.

In May, the Commonwealth decided to lift the suspension on Pakistan's membership in part because President Musharraf had agreed to stand down as army head.




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