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As Pakistani elections near, Musharraf's grip vulnerable

If his party fares badly in parliament, he could be impeached for his acts in recent months.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - President Pervez Musharraf has emerged from six tumultuous weeks of emergency rule with another five-year presidential term - but facing fresh threats to his grip on power.

Pakistan elects a new parliament next month, and after ceding control of the army and letting two key political rivals return from exile, the U.S.-backed leader will be vulnerable if the next batch of lawmakers opposes him.

Musharraf's suspension of the constitution Nov. 3 enabled him to purge the Supreme Court of judges who could have ended his autocratic rule.

But his extraconstitutional actions could leave him open to political attack and even impeachment if the ruling party fares badly at the polls, giving clout to an emboldened opposition that has been sidelined for years because of his total dominance, backed by the powerful military and a rubber-stamp parliament.

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, is despised by many liberals who once supported him. His international standing also has slipped, although he retains U.S. and British backing as an ally in the war on terrorism.

"He can't afford an unsympathetic parliament," said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and author. "If parliament is not subservient to him, then you will see a lot of trouble in Pakistan in the months after the elections."

It has been a tempestuous year for Musharraf, marked by a series of blunders since he first tried to fire the country's top judge nine months ago. His campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda backfired and led to an escalation in Islamic extremism. A recent poll found 72 percent of Pakistanis opposed his October reelection.

However, he remains Pakistan's most powerful man. His exercise of raw power has shored up his position, and in a sign that he still sees himself as pulling the military's strings, he stays at military headquarters in Rawalpindi, rather than the presidential residence in Islamabad.

"He's playing hardball and has shown that he does not care about the constitution," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a politics professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Before lifting the emergency Saturday, Musharraf doctored the constitution to protect himself from legal action for suspending it, moves endorsed by the new supreme court. "He has to do that or he will have no legal cover and constitutional protection," said former Law Minister Iftikhar Gilani.

But Musharraf, burnishing his battered credentials as a democrat, promised to hold the elections on time, a key demand from Western allies.

Ex-prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif have been allowed to return from exile and dropped threats to boycott the vote, making it a more even contest than the flawed elections in 2002 that ushered in a parliament subordinate to Musharraf. Analysts say that unless the election is severely rigged, none of the three major parties is likely to win an outright majority in the 342-seat National Assembl.

Most expect the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party that dominated the last assemblies or Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party to win, followed by Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N.

Hunt for Jet-Bomb Suspect

A manhunt was under way

in Pakistan for a suspect in an alleged plot to blow up transatlantic jets who escaped from custody Saturday under murky circumstances. Senior officials did not confirm the escape of Rashid Rauf, a British national of Pakistani origin, until nearly a day after he fled, having reportedly picked the lock on his handcuffs and overcome his captors after an Islamabad court appearance.

His escape was a blow

because of his value as a source of intelligence and evidence in the court case against the airline plotters, a British counterterrorism official said yesterday. Two Western diplomats in Pakistan said the official account of the escape was incomplete and contradictory, which they said could fuel suspicions of official complicity in the getaway.

The escape came

as Britain was seeking Rauf's extradition in a murder case dating back to 2002, after Pakistani courts dropped terrorism charges against him.

- Los Angeles Times