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Musharraf is down, but he's not out

He's winning new influence as a bitter dispute divides a rival Pakistan coalition.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Bereft of his uniform, crucified in parliamentary elections, and derided in graffiti as America's pet dog, President Pervez Musharraf has virtually vanished from public life in the last three months, reportedly nursing his wounds and coming to terms with his diminished role in a government headed by politicians he had once banished from the country.

But even from the shadows, Musharraf's presence has continued to influence the country he ruled as an army general from 1999 to 2007. The issue of whether he should remain in office has already divided the ruling coalition.

In the last week, the coalition's split - over how and when to restore judges fired by Musharraf - has dashed some of the hopes for democratic progress generated by elections in February. Just as swiftly, it has generated talk of Musharraf as the political beneficiary, chortling at his adversaries' failures and sensing a chance for political muscle-flexing, if not rehabilitation.

An aching tooth

Virtually no one here thinks that Musharraf has the clout or the desire to dissolve Parliament, as his presidential post allows him to do, let alone provoke another military coup. On the other hand, the civilian rift further lessens the chances of his being impeached by Parliament or legally challenged by the former Supreme Court chief justice he fired last year.

Moreover, many Pakistanis are convinced that Musharraf still enjoys the support of the Bush administration.

Many say they believe that Musharraf should step down now, and some compare his presidency to an aching tooth that will distract the country's attention from more important issues, such as terrorism, rising food prices and chronic electricity shortages, until it is yanked out.

Common cause

In Washington, several analysts familiar with the administration's thinking said Musharraf could play a variety of useful roles - from mediating with India to keeping the Pakistan Peoples Party and its partner, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, united.

The former military ruler also appears to have an improbable ally in Asif Ali Zardari, the powerful head of the Pakistan Peoples Party and widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Although Zardari and Bhutto were prosecuted for corruption and exiled under Musharraf's government, Pakistani analysts said Zardari had found common cause with the president on several counts: Both hate Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, who was overthrown by Musharraf in 1999 and was Bhutto's major rival for a decade. And both have a strong interest in preventing the restoration of former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who might revive corruption charges against Zardari and declare Musharraf's presidency illegal.

Despite his party's liberal ideology, critics say Zardari has been showing increasing signs of autocracy, such as strong-arming opponents through intermediaries and cracking down on press freedoms.

"Zardari has broken a lot of promises and betrayed a lot of people. His strength now is in Musharraf, who is also the major destabilizing source in Pakistan," said Hamid Mir, director and political host on the Geo TV network in the capital. Retention of the judges chosen by Musharraf, Mir said, is "essential to the political survival of both men."

Sharif, on the other hand, has become increasingly popular as he has repeatedly demanded the restoration of the ousted jurists and the removal of Musharraf. On April 13, when he announced that his party was withdrawing from the federal cabinet, he declared with apparent emotion, "We will not be part of a conspiracy to strengthen dictatorship."

Rashid Qureshi, a retired army officer who is now Musharraf's spokesman, said the politicians' latest sniping at Musharraf was based only on personal ambition for power. He said Musharraf might start becoming more active in expressing his views if urgent situations developed with the economy or terrorism.