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Musharraf committed to democracy



By staff and wire reports

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf says he is committed to democracy after declaring himself President Wednesday.

Although the new Pakistani president is drawing sharp criticism from the U.S. following his declaration, India says it will roll out the red carpet when Musharraf arrives there in July.

Musharraf replaced Pakistan's President Rafic Tarar as the nation's ceremonial head of state, strengthening his position in advance of a July 14 summit in India.

Pakistan's President Rafiq Tara had been removed from the position earlier in the day, clearing the way for Musharraf to be sworn in the same evening.

The swearing-in ceremony took place at 4pm local time (1100 GMT).

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The move to put Musharraf in the position of president is seen as strengthening his political legitimacy in advance of a July 14 summit in India.

Musharraf has held the position of Chief Executive since ousting Prime Minister Nawar Sharif in a bloodless military coup in October 1999.

The military leader was also expected to abolish the elected legislatures that he had suspended on taking power.

Democracy has been suspended in Pakistan since Musharraf seized power.

Since then, however, Musharraf has repeatedly talked about re-introducing democracy in Pakistan and he has promised new elections in 2002.

The general has not revealed exactly how he intends to bring back the popular vote, and he has not made it clear what role he would give himself in a democratic Pakistan.

Civilian president

Observers expect Musharraf to make himself a civilian president with powers to remove prime ministers.

That might leave him with political problems abroad, regardless of how other countries privately feel about the former civilian leaders.

The United States appears ready to ease sanctions imposed on Pakistan for transgressions such as testing nuclear weapons three years ago, but would have a hard time ignoring penalties mandated by law for overthrowing democratic rule.

"Whether we like it or not, you still have a military regime," Ferry de Kerckhove, the Canadian ambassador to Pakistan, told Reuters news agency. "It may have been very benevolent, filled with civilians and all that, but there is still that perception out there."

Western countries and international bodies trying to help Pakistan recover, sympathize with Musharraf's predicament.

They want civilian government and a continuation of reforms -- they do not want a return to the turmoil seen under former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

In the last few days, Musharraf has reached out to Pakistan's leading politicians, including the head of the Alliance for Restoration of Democracy, the main opposition party campaigning for immediate revival of the democratic system.

Political credibility

Meanwhile, assuming Pakistan's presidency may provide Musharraf with greater political credibility ahead of his meeting with India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in India on July 14-16.

Pakistan said Tuesday that Musharraf would visit India for the first talks between the two archrivals in more than two years.

Vajpayee invited Musharraf last month to discuss disputes between the two nuclear rivals and break a two-year deadlock in a peace process.

A Foreign Ministry statement said that Musharraf, visiting at the invitation of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, would also go to the Taj Mahal city of Agra near the capital New Delhi and the northern Indian city of Ajmer, site of a famous Muslim shrine.

It was also announced after the inauguration of Musharraf that he would be afforded the full level of protocol befitting a head of state.

Speaking on state television on Friday night, Musharraf said the protracted dispute over the Himalayan region of Kashmir would be high on his agenda for the talks.

Musharraf repeated Pakistan's position that Kashmir was the "core issue" between the neighbors and said "chances of moving forward have been never been brighter than they are now."

'Open-mindedness'

"I am sure my counterparts in India -- the Indian leadership, the Indian government -- will also show open-mindedness, and this time we will change history.

Vajpayee has acknowledged there had been little progress in the past toward resolving the Kashmir row, over which the Indian and Pakistan have fought two of their three wars since independence from Britain in 1947.

While Musharraf admitted the two foes have not moved forward on major issues in the past, he said he was optimistic about the talks and would go to the meeting with an open mind.

He urged the Indian leadership to show the same spirit.

Reuters contributed to this report.





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RELATED SITES:
• Web sites of Government of India
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