Source AP ©

Gen. Pervez Musharraf could take oath as civilian president by Saturday

Pakistani sienior official claimed Gen. Pervez Musharraf could quit as chief of Pakistan's army and take an oath as a civilian president by Saturday.

The Supreme Court is expected to clear the last legal obstacles to Musharraf's continued rule as president on Thursday. The Election Commission can then confirm his victory in a disputed presidential election held in November.

Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Musharraf would quickly quit his army post and be sworn in for a new five-year term.

"It may happen on Saturday," Qayyum said. "I know the president, and he will honor his commitment."

The general has been under heavy political pressure since he suspended the constitution on Nov. 3 and cracked down on dissenters who had questioned his right to stay in power.

The United States has said the Jan. 8 general elections it hopes will usher in a moderate government committed to fighting Islamic extremism will be seriously compromised if the emergency is not lifted.

But after purging the Supreme Court of dissenting judges, Musharraf has reined back some of the most draconian elements of what many legal experts are describing as a bout of martial law.

To stave off diplomatic isolation, Pakistan on Wednesday asked the Commonwealth of Britain and its former colonies to delay a decision on whether to suspend it.

In a phone call with his British counterpart on Tuesday, Pakistan caretaker Prime Minister Mohammedmian Soomro asked the Commonwealth for a "short postponement," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Sadiq said.

Soomro "expressed concern that any precipitate decision by (the Commonwealth) on Pakistan's participation in the Commonwealth would be unfortunate" and urged them to send a delegation to Pakistan to find out more about the situation, Sadiq said.

Foreign ministers from the 53-nation organization meeting in Kampala, Uganda, were expected to take up the issue of Pakistan on Thursday.

A suspension would be an international embarrassment for Pakistan, which was last kicked out of the organization in 1999, after Musharraf seized power in a coup. It took the country five years to be reinstated.

At home, Musharraf is maneuvering to prevent his two most dangerous critics - former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif - from forming a powerful opposition alliance against him.

On Wednesday, the Interior Ministry said more than 3,700 of the opposition and human rights activists rounded up since the emergency had been freed, several hundred more than it reported the day before.

Still, some 2,000 remained in detention, including leaders of Sharif's party and prominent lawyers who have led mass protests to defend the independence of the judiciary.

On Wednesday, dozens of policemen swung batons and fired tear gas to prevent journalists from rallying in the eastern city of Faisalabad against curbs on the media.

Police were also in action in the southwestern city of Quetta, where 25 journalists were detained after a street rally during which they chanted "Musharraf, we do not accept your laws," and "Long live the freedom of journalism."

Musharraf can safely give up his powerful military role after the Supreme Court, now stacked with loyalist judges, on Monday dismissed opposition complaints that the constitution barred him from seeking another term as president because he was still army chief.

Musharraf declared the emergency just as the court was preparing to rule, apparently fearing that it would disqualify him.

Opposition parties insist the court's decision are invalid and are calling in unison for Musharraf to lift the emergency and leave power altogether.

However, they have failed to reach any agreement on a proposed boycott of the vote - a drastic step that could wreck Musharraf's efforts to remain atop a restored civilian government.

Many analysts believe Bhutto, also under pressure from Washington to moderate her rhetoric, could yet team up with Musharraf - a fellow pro-Western secularist - after the elections.

Bhutto said late Tuesday that it would be a "good sign" if Musharraf quits his army post. She said her party needed a few more days to decide whether to contest the vote.

Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, a leading religious party also widely tipped to join the next government, is also reportedly inclined to participate in the ballot.

Musharraf flew back early Wednesday from talks with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, an influential ally due to Riyadh's aid, investments and religious authority in Pakistan.

A Pakistani official said Musharraf's goal was to prevent Sharif from returning before the elections.

Pakistan's media speculated that Musharraf was reaching out to his old foe. But Sharif's party said there was no chance of them entering any negotiations.

Sharif remains committed to "not holding negotiations with a military dictator," said party chairman Raja Zafarul Haq.

Haq declined to say whether his party would boycott the vote, saying the opposition ought to make a collective decision.

Musharraf has said he suspended the constitution to ward off political chaos and give authorities a freer hand against Islamist militants, who have pushed out of their traditional strongholds in the tribal regions near Afghanistan into areas once considered safe.

On Wednesday, troops continued to battle pro-Taliban militants in Swat, a former tourist region just 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the capital. The army said it killed 40 fighters on Tuesday and Wednesday. Some 180 militants have been killed in the region in the past week, authorities said.