ISLAMABAD (AFP) — The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was expected Thursday to nominate Pakistan's new prime minister to lead a parliament that could decide the fate of President Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan People's Party vice-chief Makhdoom Amin Fahim is the frontrunner to be nominated by the party's MPs, who are meeting in Islamabad just over two weeks after the PPP scooped the most seats in parliamentary elections.
Musharraf, a key ally in the US-led "war on terror", saw his backers trounced in the polls and must now deal with a coalition that includes not only the PPP but also his archfoe, former premier Nawaz Sharif.
But with Washington pressing for stability in the nuclear-armed nation, the PPP-led coalition has not yet indicated whether it is ready for a full showdown with Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999.
Bhutto was killed in a suicide attack in the garrison city of Rawalpindi on December 27 and her widower and successor as party leader, Asif Ali Zardari, has said he is not standing for the premiership.
Zardari was meeting on Thursday "for consultation" with the party's newly-elected lawmakers, party spokesman Farhatullah Babar told AFP.
A senior party official said however that the PPP was "very close to naming the prime minister" after Zardari had heard the party's opinions.
The poetry-loving Fahim, 69, one of Bhutto's most loyal lieutenants, held a 45-minute meeting with Zardari on Wednesday, a close aide to Bhutto's widower told AFP.
Another contender is Ahmed Mukhtar, an industrialist who is close to Zardari and who defeated the chief of the pro-Musharraf party in the elections, party officials said.
Also in the running are Yousaf Raza Gilani, who served as parliamentary speaker for a time under Bhutto, and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, head of the PPP's Punjab branch, they said.
The United States, which is Pakistan's key financial and military backer, has appealed to the victorious opposition parties to work with Musharraf in the new parliament.
The coalition needs only to bring on board a few more independent MPs to secure the two-thirds majority with which it could theoretically launch impeachment proceedings against Musharraf.
Sharif, the man ousted by Musharraf nearly nine years ago, and his Pakistan Muslim League-N party have been outspoken in their calls for him to quit.
But the PPP's Fahim told CNN last month that there were no immediate plans for Musharraf's removal, saying that the new government should "not rock the boat at this time".
Zardari has received several visits from Western ambassadors since the election and has also avoided any outright commitment to removing the former general.
In a possible signal of rapprochement, an anti-graft court on Wednesday threw out five of seven corruption cases that were hanging over Bhutto's widower from her two terms in power.
The ruling followed an amnesty granted to Bhutto and Zardari in October by Musharraf, which had paved the way for her return from exile amid talk of a Western-backed power-sharing arrangement between her and the president.
Separately on Thursday five suspected militants accused of involvement in Bhutto's murder were remanded in custody by a Pakistani anti-terrorist court in Rawalpindi.
Security was tight for the brief hearing. A judge ordered the men to be held in the city's main Adiala jail until the next sitting on March 10, court officials said.
Pakistani police last week formally charged top Taliban and Al-Qaeda commander Baitullah Mehsud, who is holed up in the country's tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, with masterminding her killing.
He has denied any involvement.
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