Pakistan political crisis to resume after Eid break

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ISLAMABAD, Oct 14 (Reuters) Pakistan has the next few days off to celebrate the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, but by the middle of this week it should be back to a familiar state of being on the brink of a crisis.

While government offices and financial markets are shut through Tuesday for feasting and gifting during Eid al-Fitr festivities, US ally President Pervez Musharraf is unlikely to be able to escape worries over how to prolong his rule.

Al Qaeda wants him dead, Taliban fighters are killing and kidnapping his soldiers, exiled civilian leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif are getting ready to come home and Pakistan's previously docile judges are literally on his case.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will reconvene to consider whether General Musharraf, who seized control in a coup eight years ago, is entitled to five more years in power having won an election while still army chief.

On Thursday, potential ally, possible rival and fellow al Qaeda assassination target Bhutto is due to end more than eight years of self-exile in a homecoming to Karachi that will be fraught with security and legal worries.

The Supreme Court has cast Musharraf's plans for the future in more uncertainty by saying it will hear challenges against the legality of his amnesty to protect Bhutto from graft charges, a move widely regarded as part of a deal for the pair to share power after national elections due in early January.

To add to the mix, Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted, exiled and booted out again in September, when he tried to come back, could attempt to return again, diplomats say.

UNCHARTED WATERS Authority has ebbed from Musharraf since he unsuccessfully tried to sack Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry last March, prompting lawyers to form a pro-democracy movement to counter what they saw as an attack on the judiciary.

Musharraf, however, insists that his objective is to guide Pakistan toward a fuller democracy.

''We are faced with heightened activity by the forces of extremism and militancy who threaten the very foundations and ideology of Pakistan,'' Musharraf said in a sombre Eid message to the nation. ''They can be countered effectively only through national consensus and political harmony.'' Having designated his successor as army chief, Musharraf is ready to become a civilian leader so long as his October 6 election victory is ratified by the Supreme Court.

The bench hearing the case has been enlarged to 11 judges, and proceedings could go on for days.

Many analysts doubt whether the court would dare plunge Pakistan into constitutionally uncharted waters by annulling Musharraf's election and risk provoking the general into declaring a state of emergency or martial law.

''If there is clear judgement disqualifying him from the election, saying that he was not eligible and there is no balancing part of a judgment that allows him to continue, then I think, there will be a serious crisis,'' said Tanvir Ahmed Khan, a political analyst and former foreign secretary.

''Then we may be thinking of serious crisis, emergency, even worse, postponement of elections,'' Khan warned.

Khan believes the judges will find a way to address points of law without unbalancing the system.

SAPPED MORALE But not only has General Musharraf's popularity plunged nationally, but morale in the army, his principal source of support, has suffered over the past few months.

Soldiers have been targeted by suicide bombers, blown up by roadside bombs, had their throats slit and been beheaded by militants in Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan where about 250 people died in clashes last week.

The army's woes were compounded by the humiliating capture of more than 240 soldiers in a supply convoy last August.

Musharraf's inner circle believe Al Qaeda and the Taliban's grand strategy is to destabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan and make way for Islamist forces to eventually take control.

Ordinary Pakistanis are more concerned about rising prices that have accompanied the surge in economic growth that has taken place under Musharraf, and many believe the militant threat would die down if Pakistan ended its alliance with the United States.

But informed insiders believe the danger is all too real.

''Musharraf and his guys had better get their act together, otherwise this country will become like Iran,'' said a senior bureaucrat.

Reuters PD GC1526

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