Musharraf yields to pressure and stands down as head of army

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The Independent Online

Pakistan's military leader, General Pervez Musharraf, ended what's been called the longest striptease in history yesterday when he finally took off his khaki uniform and stood down as head of the army. Today the man who first seized power in a bloodless military coup in 1999 is to be sworn in as a civilian president for a further five-year term.

Removing his military uniform was a concession to international and domestic pressure and brought praise from the White House, but he still remains under pressure to lift the nearly four-week-old state of emergency before elections in January.

He appeared tearful at the grand military ceremony where, accompanied by a brass band playing "Auld Lang Syne", he passed a golden baton to his successor, General Ashfaq Kiyani, and bade farewell to the army among whose ranks he had spent the past half-century. "The army is my life. I love the army," General Musharraf said, his voice thick with emotion. "The system continues, people come and go, everyone has to go, every good thing comes to an end, everything is mortal."

The move came after a sustained campaign from General Musharraf's political opponents and his sponsors in Washington, who have been urging a transition to civilian rule. He had reneged on promises to quit as army chief, having pledged to do so in 2004 in return for parliamentary support from the bloc of religious parties. By finally relinquishing his post in the institution that guaranteed his power, analysts said he was in a shakier position.

"He's done it reluctantly," said Talat Masood, a retired general turned liberal military and political analyst. "If it were up to him, he would have held on. He has been weakened in the past few months, and this will weaken him further."

General Musharraf has insisted he will keep the support of the armed forces after his retirement. Last month, he promoted several loyal generals to key positions. As President, he will still command the allegiance of the powerful military intelligency agency, the ISI, headed by General Nadeem Taj.

His successor, General Kiyani, is the former head of the ISI and, by all accounts, has no obvious political ambitions. The 55-year-old chain-smoker and golf enthusiast commands the respect of Washington and the former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto. General Kiyani served as her deputy military secretary during her first government, and more recently, served as Mrl Musharraf's envoy in power-sharing negotiations with the opposition leader.

Many observers believe General Kiyani will try to distance the 500,000-strong army from politics and adopt a slightly different approach to the "war on terror". Recently, pro-Taliban militants have made significant gains in the tribal belt along the Afghan border and in the North-West Frontier's Swat valley.

Ms Bhutto welcomed General Musharraf's decision but said she was not yet prepared to accept him as head of state. Other opposition members said the move was little more than a sartorial change.