Pakistan's parliament passes bill allowing President Musharraf to stay as army chief

Thursday, October 14th 2004, 2:26 pm
By: News On 6

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Lawmakers passed a bill Thursday allowing President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to remain as army chief, reversing his earlier promises to step down from the post and raising cries from opponents who say the close U.S. ally has too much power.

Musharraf's government, which pushed the new law through, said the measure would ensure stability in a country with a long history of political turmoil. Its passage through the National Assembly came just days after the fifth anniversary of Musharraf taking power in a bloodless coup.

The law will ensure the country has a leader capable of strengthening ``our drive and commitment in the fight against terrorism,'' said Tariq Azeem Khan, a spokesman for the ruling party.

``The government decided to move the bill in the assembly to bring stability and ensure a smooth continuation of democracy,'' Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Sher Afgan said.

Musharraf pledged last December to step down as army chief by the end of this year in return for support from some of his political opponents to amend the constitution. The amendments gave him additional powers that include the ability to dismiss parliament and the prime minister.

But last month the general, who has survived two assassination attempts blamed on al-Qaida-linked militants, indicated he may go back on his pledge.

Afgan, the minister, said Thursday's bill, which was passed with a simple majority, should end all debate as to whether the president would retain the powerful position as head of the military, which has ruled Pakistan much of the time since independence in 1947.

The legislation must now be approved by the Senate, or upper house of parliament, where the ruling party also has a majority.

During Thursday's voting, opposition lawmakers beat their desks, crowded the speaker's dais, tore copies of the bill and chanted anti-Musharraf slogans, such as ``Down with Musharraf!''

Opposition political groups filed a no-confidence motion against the speaker of the assembly, accusing him of ``bulldozing'' the bill through the house and not allowing enough time for debate.

``We reject this law,'' Sadique al-Farooq, spokesman for the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League Party, said after it was passed. ``Musharraf has not transferred power to a civilian government and military dictatorship continues.''

He vowed to ``launch a movement'' to end this.

There has been little international criticism of Musharraf since he suggested last month he did not intend to leave the army.

The general has been lauded by the United States and other Western nations for his support of the U.S.-led war on terror, including a decision to end Pakistan's support of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in America.

In 2002, Musharraf held a controversial referendum _ in which he was the only candidate _ and won a five-year term to remain as the head of state.

``There is no democracy. It's a shame,'' said I.A. Rahman, director at the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. He said parliament had been robbed of its independence and has no ``opinion of its own.''