Pakistan's Musharraf disignates new army chief

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 2 (Reuters) Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf today named his successor as army chief as more than 80 opposition members of parliament resigned to protest against the president's bid to seek re-election.

General Musharraf, a close US ally and leader of the only nuclear-armed Islamic nation, looks set to win re-election on Saturday in votes by the two-chamber parliament and four provincial assemblies.

He has vowed that, if re-elected, he would quit as army chief before being sworn in for a new term on November 15 and would rule as a civilian leader.

The designation of Lieutenant-General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as his successor is the clearest indication yet that Musharraf will follow through with his promise and give up his uniform.

''Lieutenant-General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has been appointed vice chief of the army staff,'' a military official told Reuters.

''General Kayani will take over as chief of the army staff after this post falls vacant.'' Chain-smoking Kayani had been director-general of the military's main security agency, the Inter Services Intelligence agency, until last month. He is well-regarded by US counterparts, Western diplomats say.

Pakistan is an important non-NATO ally for the United States. Its support is regarded as crucial for the success of Western military efforts in Afghanistan, and in the hunt for Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda in tribal areas on the Afghan border.

Analysts agree that regardless of loyalty to Musharraf, the military leadership is likely to be loath to involve the army in politics given the prevailing sentiment in the country.

Kayani was deputy military secretary to then prime minister Benazir Bhutto during her first government in the late 1980s.

Self-exiled Bhutto has been in talks with Musharraf on a power-sharing deal and Kayani was involved in the discussions.

''AGAINST DICTATORSHIP'' Despite slumping popularity, Musharraf is expected to win Saturday's vote. His ruling coalition holds a majority in parliament, which is due to be dissolved next month before a general election due by mid-January.

Apparently unable to derail Musharraf's re-election plans, an opposition alliance led by the party of former prime minster Nawaz Sharif had vowed to quit the national and provincial assemblies in protest.

''These resignations are against dictatorship,''Fazal-ur-Rehman, leader of the opposition and secretary-general of the Islamic Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal alliance, told reporters after handing in his members' resignation papers.

The speaker said 85 members of the 342-seat lower house had resigned.

But Bhutto's party, the biggest opposition party, has not joined the walk-out, although she has said her members might resign unless her demands for democratic reforms were met.

Bhutto, who is due to return on Oct. 18, said she would decide strategy at party talks in London on Wednesday.

The walk-out will not derail the vote, even if Bhutto's party joins in, but it will detract from its credibility.

Opposition members also resigned from provincial assemblies.

In a major boost to Musharraf last week, the Supreme Court dismissed challenges to his re-election while still army chief.

The Election Commission also rejected opposition objections to his candidacy.

Nevertheless, lawyers for Musharraf's two main presidential rivals filed fresh challenges in the Supreme Court in a last-ditch bid to block him.

His rivals are Wajihuddin Ahmed, a former Supreme Court judge who resigned in 2000 rather than swear allegiance to Musharraf, and Makhdoom Amin Faheem, from Bhutto's party.

REUTERS ARB AS1632

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