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Pakistan faces critical days as decision nears on Musharraf

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The showdown between President Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistan government is set to climax this week, with Musharraf under intense pressure to quit before the formal start of impeachment proceedings that would plunge the U.S. ally into further political turmoil.

Musharraf so far has refused to crumble in the face of the impeachment threat, escalating a crisis that is sucking Islamabad's attention away from the anti-terror fight.

Militants allied to the Taliban and al Qaida, based in Pakistan's border region with Afghanistan, have responded to the new government's policy of seeking peace negotiations with escalating violence. Washington believes that extremists use Pakistan's border area as a base to launch attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan and has been critical of Islamabad's strategy of peace talks.

Back-channel negotiations between the Pakistani coalition government, which came to power after elections in February, and Musharraf have not produced an exit deal for him, though he is still most likely to resign rather than face impeachment. But there is not much time left, as early this week Pakistan's parliament is scheduled to move an impeachment motion in parliament, which would kick off the prosecution.

Should the impeachment go ahead against Musharraf, some of the charges against him could stem from Pakistan's role in America's war on terror, causing strains between the government and Washington as well as Pakistan's powerful army.

"There's no more negotiation now. Whatever we had to offer has been offered," said a senior politician in the coalition, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject. "He's just not 100 percent sure he wants to go. That's his commando nature."

According to aides of the president, Musharraf is now plotting to have the final say, by rebutting whatever accusations are leveled against him, then resigning before the impeachment hearings begin.

"We want him to defend himself, not just dump us and leave. Once and for all, he should answer all those questions," said a presidential supporter, who could not be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Although Musharraf cannot muster enough support to beat the impeachment proceedings in parliament, analysts believe that he does hold some strong cards. The government has been heavily lobbied by Western allies and Pakistan's powerful army, who do not want to see the messy and risky impeachment proceedings. The government indicated that it is willing to cut a deal.

"We are not interested in politics of vendetta," said Sherry Rehman, a senior minister. "We want political stability and the government's focus should be on the people's betterment."

But in return for quitting, Musharraf has demanded that he be given immunity from any future prosecution and that he be allowed to live in Pakistan, both conditions that the government is very reluctant to meet.

Musharraf presided over Pakistan's anti-terror alliance with Washington. There is speculation that key aspects of that cooperation with the United States, as well as other actions against extremists, could form part of the impeachment accusations against the president. This could include the hundreds of Pakistan terror suspects who have "disappeared" since 9/11, some into U.S. custody, and the sanctioning of American missile strikes against suspected militant camps in Pakistan's tribal areas. The Pakistan army raid on Islamabad's radical Red Mosque last year, which resulted in around 100 deaths, could also be featured.

"Nobody wants the Pandora's Box opened up," said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times, the Pakistani newspaper. "The issue of impeachment is really a non-starter."

It had been thought that, given Musharraf's close partnership with Washington, he might live in the United States if he is forced into exile. However, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while noting that "President Musharraf has been a good ally," said Sunday that Washington was not considering granting him asylum.

"That's not an issue on the table, and I just want to keep our focus on what we must do with the democratic government of Pakistan," Rice told Fox News.

That leaves a Middle Eastern ally of Pakistan, such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, as the most likely refuge for Musharraf.

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