RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AFP) — Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was set to step down as army chief on Wednesday, finally bowing to international demands to end eight years of divisive military rule.
In a bid to ease the growing crisis over his imposition of a state of emergency earlier this month, he will transfer the reins of the powerful army and its nuclear arsenal to his deputy, General Ashfaq Kiyani.
A formal handover ceremony in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, is due to be followed on Thursday by Musharraf's swearing-in as a civilian president.
But Musharraf, who seized power in a bloodless coup in 1999 and has since become a key US ally, will face further pressure at home and abroad to lift emergency rule ahead of elections set for January 8.
"President Musharraf will retire today as chief of army staff and take oath as a civilian president (Thursday)," his spokesman Rashid Qureshi told AFP.
Officials said Musharraf would be presented with a guard of honour at the army's general headquarters in Rawalpindi. He spent Tuesday saying farewell to his troops in a series of colourful ceremonies.
He will then pin a badge to the chest of Kiyani, the country's former intelligence chief, to mark the formal transfer of power over Pakistan's half-million-strong army.
The move will bring down the curtain on a four-decade military career that has seen Musharraf serve as a commando, fight in two wars with rival India and topple a civilian government.
His resignation from the military meets a key demand of the international community that had until recently been happy to back Musharraf as long as he kept up the fight against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
US President George W. Bush and other Western leaders have all called on Musharraf to quit as army chief, lift the state of emergency, restore the constitution, release political detainees and end curbs on the media.
But how Musharraf fares politically without his military role depends on the continued backing of Kiyani, a pro-Western, chain-smoking loyalist, and the strength of Pakistan's opposition parties.
"Musharraf is going to be far more vulnerable than he has been to this point," said Farsana Shaikh, a Pakistan analyst at the London-based think-tank Chatham House.
"He certainly risks facing an unruly parliament which may well decide to take revenge."
Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted eight years ago, and Benazir Bhutto, another ex-premier, are both jockeying for position ahead of the elections.
Both are mulling a boycott of the polls, saying that they would be unfair if held under emergency rule, and any opposition coalition could leave Musharraf politically isolated.
Musharraf imposed the state of emergency citing rising Islamic militancy and an unruly judiciary.
Critics charged that he wanted to purge the Supreme Court of hostile judges to ensure that they would not overturn his victory in last month's presidential election.
Sharif and Bhutto, both of whom have served two terms, have vowed never to serve under Musharraf in a future government -- although the law currently bars them from serving a third term.
Bhutto told reporters in Karachi late Tuesday that she was still "not certain" Musharraf would quit the army.
"General Musharraf seems set to become the first chief of army staff of Pakistan who takes off his uniform peacefully. But it is yet to be seen whether he doffs his uniform as per his promise," she said.
She added however that she knows and respects Kiyani, who once served as her military aide: "He is a good professional and will prove to be a good full-time leader of the armed forces."
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