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Analysis| Change in Pakistan

As Musharraf's rule dims,questions posed for U.S.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf is running out of options. Legal complexities may save him in the short-term, but few expect him to hold on for long, raising fresh uncertainty over Pakistan's support for the aggressive U.S. approach to fighting radical Islamic groups.

The declaration by the winners of last month's parliamentary elections that they will form a coalition government and reinstate judges sacked by Musharraf has robbed the president of his last trump card: division in the political opposition.

Parliament is to convene in the next week or so. Within a month of the new Cabinet being formed, the ruling parties say they will vote to restore the judges, a move that would undercut Musharraf's authority.

"The die is pretty much cast for him," said Pakistani political analyst Nasim Zehra, a fellow at Harvard University's Asia Center. "He can't survive in the sense of being the man who calls the shots. He can insist on staying in office as it all unravels around him."

A year of turmoil triggered by Musharraf's clumsy attempt to oust the independent-minded chief justice robbed him of public support. He has since lost the aces he held for most of his eight-year rule: command of the army, a supportive Parliament and unqualified Western backing.

Amid growing public resentment over military rule, the parties of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto and another ex-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, won 63 percent of the Parliament seats and seized the political center stage after being sidelined since Musharraf seized control in a 1999 coup.

While the victors remain short of the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to impeach the president, their agreement Sunday to set aside long-standing rivalries and team up leaves the retired general on the defensive.

"It is a defining moment in Pakistan's political history," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political scientist at Lahore's University of Management Sciences. "The mainstream political forces in the country have a unanimity of views on the most fundamental issue facing the country: to get Pakistan on the track of constitutional democracy and a parliamentary form of government."

U.S. officials have also begun a discreet realignment, stressing that Washington's alliance is with Pakistan, not Musharraf alone — a shift from calling the president "indispensable" in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan's tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.

The changing political landscape could have ramifications for U.S. policy. Pakistan's new civilian rulers will be more wary of the military offensives Musharraf pursued in the frontier region — a campaign that proved unpopular with Pakistanis and has been blamed by many for the surge in extremist violence.

Matthew Pennington, chief of the Associated Press bureau in Islamabad, has reported on Pakistan since 2003.

As Musharraf's rule dims,questions posed for U.S. 03/10/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:35am]
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