Bhutto claims Musharraf will leave army post

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Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf has signalled he is willing to step down as head of the army in a high stakes gamble to save his presidency, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto claimed last night.

Mrs Bhutto, who is in talks with General Musharraf about an alliance that would return the country to civilian rule, said she had secured agreement from the leader although there no confirmation last night.

"I certainly expect him to step down as head of the army before the presidential election, but I think it's for General Musharraf to make the actual announcement," Mrs Bhutto told The Independent. "He wants to take a decision that reaches out to the people of Pakistan and makes them happy and what will make them happy is separating the uniform from the presidency."

Mrs Bhutto had opened secret talks with General Musharraf earlier this year about a power-sharing deal where he would retain the presidency and she would reprise her role as prime minister, an office she has already held twice before.

"We have crossed 80 percent of the hurdles," the exiled former premier said.

The outstanding issues to be resolved before their pact can be announced are scrapping the president's authority to sack the government and finalising the timing of presidential elections. But Mrs Bhutto said she was optimistic these final details would be ironed out quickly.

General Musharraf's support has slipped dramatically this year, ever since he tried to oust the Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. The move was widely regarded as a political machination and initial isolated protests quickly snowballed into a far-reaching public campaign against his continued rule.

He also faces problems with extremists, especially after a raid on the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad, which sparked a wave of retaliatory suicide attacks and bombings against government troops and policemen.

But shedding his uniform could be Mr Musharraf's most momentous decision yet. Pakistan's military has wielded great influence, during both civilian and military rule and many have questioned whether senior generals would continue to support Mr Musharraf if he was no longer head of the armed forces.

A deal between the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Mrs Bhutto's group, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the ruling party loyal to President Musharraf, has been mooted as one solution for Mr Musharraf, seeking to secure another five year-term as president.

In recent days it has been reported Mrs Bhutto has been pressing Mr Musharraf over their proposed deal – possibly as a result of a court decision last week that opened for the way for another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, the man toppled in General Musharraf's bloodless coup in 1999, to return to Pakistan.

Many of Mrs Bhutto's aides believe Mr Sharif may try and outflank her and portray her as someone willing to co-operate with a dictator to further her own political ambitions. Mrs Bhutto, who left Pakistan in 1999 to avoid arrest, said she planned to return to her homeland between September and December, saying that outstanding charges of corruption were "no longer a stumbling block."