RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AFP) — An emotional Pervez Musharraf stepped down as Pakistan's army chief Wednesday, bowing to global pressure to end eight years of military rule a day before he becomes a civilian president.
In a moment many Pakistanis thought they would never see, Musharraf handed over the baton of command for the nuclear-armed military to his hand-picked heir, General Ashfaq Kiyani, at a farewell parade.
Musharraf, a key US ally, will be sworn in for a second five-year term as president on Thursday as he seeks to quell international and domestic outrage over his November 3 imposition of a state of emergency.
His resignation from the military was welcomed by the United States, Britain and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, but all said further steps were needed, including the end of emergency rule.
Addressing hundreds of invited guests and dignitaries, Musharraf, wearing a green sash over his light khaki ceremonial dress and medals, praised the army as Pakistan's "binding force."
"After remaining in uniform for 46 years I am saying goodbye to this army. This army is my life, this army is my passion. I have loved this army."
The 64-year-old former commando dabbed at his eyes behind his glasses at one point and lifted a handkerchief to his nose after his speech.
Buglers announced Musharraf's arrival at a stadium at army headquarters in Rawalpindi and then, to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne," an honour guard escorted him and former spy chief Kiyani to their position on a dais.
Musharraf -- who led a bloodless coup in 1999 and once described his uniform as his second skin -- hailed the armed forces as the "saviour of Pakistan". He also voiced full confidence in Kiyani.
But without the army, the main source of his power, Musharraf faces a torrid time ahead of elections set for January 8, with growing calls for him to end emergency rule.
In Washington, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed the Pakistani leader for "a good step, a good first step in president Musharraf carrying out his obligation, indeed his promise to take off his uniform."
"But the decision now needs to be taken to end the state of emergency to allow free and fair elections to take place," she told NBC television.
At the White House, a spokeswoman, Cynthia Bergman, added: "This was an important move taken today by President Musharraf."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said it was an "important part of the process" toward restoring democracy but urged Musharraf to follow up by ensuring free and fair elections were held as planned.
The United States and other Western allies have largely seen emergency rule as an obstacle to Pakistan's pursuit of Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.
In Karachi, Bhutto said that Musharraf had met one of her key demands, but she warned: "We are not in a hurry to accept Pervez Musharraf as a civilian president."
The opposition insists Musharraf's October 6 re-election as president was illegal, claiming he imposed emergency rule to purge the Supreme Court of hostile judges who threatened to overturn his victory.
In a sign that Musharraf may respond to the clamour, attorney general Malik Muhammad Qayyum told AFP the emergency would be lifted "very soon", without specifying a date.
Musharraf's spokesman Rashid Qureshi said he would address the nation late Thursday after he takes the oath as president, but gave no more details.
But Musharraf's chances of lasting out the coming months depend partly on whether Bhutto and another ex-premier, Nawaz Sharif, can build an alliance.
Both are mulling a boycott of the polls, saying an election would be unfair if held under emergency rule, and any opposition coalition could leave Musharraf politically isolated.
The pair have vowed never to serve under Musharraf in a future government, although the law currently bars them from serving a third term in any case.
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