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Pakistan’s unrest weakening Musharraf

Posted By Philippe Khan

Today a human bomber blew himself up inside a crowded restaurant in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 20 others. 

The explosion was the latest in a series of violent attacks that have rocked Pakistan over the past four days. The country’s major cities are paralyzed by political strikes and rocked by violence that has claimed the lives of more than 40 people in the southern city of Karachi over the weekend. An exchange of fire between Afghan and Pakistani forces on the disputed border was also reported on Sunday, one day before an attack killed a U.S. soldier and a Pakistani on Pakistan’s side of the border. Also Monday, Syed Hammad Raza, an official of Pakistan's Supreme Court, was shot dead in his home. 

Although all incidents aren’t related to each other, analysts say they all undermine the strength of the U.S.-allied Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who is feeling the heat from all directions amid accusations that he is allowing tensions to escalate while focusing on how to extend his nearly eight-year rule, according to an article on The Toronto Star. 

"Musharraf is losing control," said retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a one-time Musharraf adviser. "The government is only interested in pushing its own agenda and staying in power. They're not interested in addressing Pakistan's problems…So these fires have been burning all along, but now they are bUrning together."

Musharraf, who seized office in a 1999 bloodless coup, is being threatened by his suspension two months ago of Pakistan's top judge, Iftikhar Chaudhry; a move that sparked protests from supporters as well opponents. The president accused Chaudhry of using his power to obtain a police job for his son. But many in Pakistan dismissed the charge and united behind the judge, who became the most celebrated figure in the country. 

Musharraf's critics called the judge's suspension an attempt to undermine the independence of the judiciary, and pave the way for the president to remain in office as head of state and chief of the army as a September presidential election approaches.

"(It) boils down to one simple fact," leading Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid wrote in The Washington Post. "He (Chaudhry) was not considered sufficiently reliable to deliver pleasing legal judgments in a year when Musharraf is seeking to extend his presidency for five more years, remain as army chief and hold what would undoubtedly be rigged general elections."

An increasing number of Pakistanis and foreign observers are now asking the same question: Is it time for Musharraf to go? 

"In the last few days a feeling of tragedy is growing among Pakistanis," says Hassan Abbas, a research fellow of Harvard University's Belfer Center, and former Pakistani security official. "People who believed in the rule of law saw all their desires and dreams crushed by the violence of the last two days."

“There is not just dislike of Musharraf, but hatred,” he added. 

This sentiment was clearly illustrated in a protest held yesterday by lawmakers to denounce the Pakistani President as "killer Musharraf." 

Ordinary citizens blame Musharraf and his political allies for Karachi’s violence, which broke out after the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), allies of Musharraf, tried to block a peaceful protest by thousands of Chaudrey’s supporters. 

The local security services did nothing to stop the violence, residents say. 

"That's what tipped the balance," says Toronto-based analyst Kamran Bokhari, an expert in the region. "Goons were allowed to open fire, point blank, at opposition workers. It's taken a major psychological toll on the country."

The bloodshed, which Musharraf denounced but failed to halt, has ended his chances of re-election, said Bokhari, a senior analyst for U.S.-based Strategic Forecasting Inc. "All over the country people were able to watch the violence on television and it horrified them. They have had enough."

Above all his political survival is in doubt because his biggest backer, the military, is "ready to give him the boot."

"Pakistan's military is like a corporation. If the board of directors sees that the CEO is putting his interests above everybody else's, they get ready to negotiate a retirement package," Bokhari said.

The recent developments also made many of Musharraf's political allies back off. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Party, withdrew his support, and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's popular Pakistan People's Party is expected to follow. The country's rival intelligence services are also turning their backs on Musharraf. 

The violence has also embarrassed the United States, which supplies Pakistan with money and financial support to join in the "war on terror." Musharraf’s ouster would remove the regional linchpin for the West's fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani President has been a key ally of the U.S. President George W. Bush since the United States invaded neighboring Afghanistan in late 2001. 

"Anger in the U.S. Congress and media, particularly among members of the Republican party, toward Musharraf… is making it difficult for President Bush to continue offering his blanket support," says Rashid.

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