ISLAMABAD - British and American diplomats are attempting to find an exit for Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, a staunch western ally, before he is dragged through a humiliating impeachment process.
Rumours that Musharraf is set to quit have been circulating in Pakistan for several days. He has suffered a collapse in support as three of Pakistan's four provincial parliaments have passed resolutions, with overwhelming backing, declaring him unfit for office. The fourth province is expected to follow soon.
The provincial votes were symbolic, but the formal process will begin early next week with an impeachment motion in the national parliament. It is clear that the ruling coalition now has the two-thirds majority needed to impeach him.
Government insiders said that if Musharraf wants to quit, he must do so before the impeachment proceedings begin, leaving him with only a few days.
His spokesman has rebutted any suggestion that he will step down.
Western diplomats have sought to convince the coalition government that impeachment would further undermine the security and political situation in crisis-racked Pakistan, and that he should instead be offered a "graceful exit".
"We're being told [by western envoys] that it's not going to bring more stability to have a long trial. And that it is in the interests of stability for him to exit," said one senior coalition politician.
Sir Mark Lyall Grant, director of political affairs at the British Foreign Office, currently in Pakistan, is said to spearheading the message of caution. Lyall Grant met Asif Zardari, leader of the Pakistan People's Party, one of the two big parties in the coalition, on Tuesday night at the British high commission. He held a separate meeting with Sherry Rehman, a senior minister, and he also saw Musharraf, the FCO confirmed.
Lyall Grant, a former British high commissioner to Pakistan, was intimately involved in western-mediated negotiations last year between Musharraf and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, which presaged her return to Pakistan and the holding of elections.
American diplomats are also engaged in an intensive round of meetings. The deputy US ambassador, Peter Bodde, is understood to have met Zardari in the last couple of days. American ambassador Anne Patterson saw Nisar Ali Khan, a senior member of Nawaz Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, the other main group in the coalition. Sources in Sharif's party said her message was: "Give Musharraf safe passage."
However, spokesmen for both the British and US missions denied that they were seeking to interfere. Aidan Liddle, a spokesman for the British embassy, said: "We are very clear that we have no role to play in this impeachment process. Britain has no interest in talking about the fate of individuals."
Musharraf has been a crucial partner in the so-called "war on terror". US officials in particular are anxious that he is not disgraced now.
They are also concerned that impeachment of Musharraf, a former army chief, will poison relations between the government and Pakistan's powerful military.
"There is a link between Musharraf and the army, so humiliating him is like humiliating the army," said Daniel Markey, a former US state department official who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The [US] administration would have much preferred to see a workable political arrangement, between Musharraf and the government, not another looming transition."
The attack on Musharraf has been inflamed in recent days by Zardari's accusations that the president siphoned off hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid. The accusation, backed up by no evidence, is said to have made Musharraf more determined to fight on. The PPP is willing to allow the president to resign and retreat from public life.
However, the party of Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted as prime minister in 1999 by Musharraf's military coup, seems determined to prosecute the president. "We've had enough of dictators," said Ahsan Iqbal, one of the leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-N. "Whoever abrogates the constitution must be punished or we will never stop these dictators usurping power here."
Sheikh Waqas Akram, a pro-Musharraf member of the national parliament, warned: "This is a man who stood up against al-Qaida. Who will face al-Qaida after Musharraf? Certainly not this coalition." Akram, who is close to the president, said that Musharraf wanted to stay in Pakistan after he leaves office.
However, there have been at least three assassination attempts on the president by extremist groups, and it is considered highly dangerous for him to remain in the country. Al-Qaida recently issued a video denouncing Musharraf's rule.
Where could he go?
Musharraf has been one of the Bush administration's closest allies. While Washington would prefer not to host his exile, as it would look bad politically, it would if he has nowhere else to go. His son lives in the US.
The president has a small farm just outside Islamabad but the house is still being constructed and security would be a challenge. Another option would be Karachi but it is a volatile city with a huge population of Pushtuns, the ethnic group most angered by his rule.
This has long been the favoured destination for Musharraf in exile. He spent his childhood in Turkey, speaks the language and loves the country. He is rumoured to own property there. But Turkey is a Muslim-majority country and he may become a target.
Saudi Arabia has a rich tradition of taking in former dictators and, as a firm ally of Pakistan, would be willing to accommodate Musharraf as part of an exit deal. Nawaz Sharif was given refuge there in 2000, after Musharraf ousted him from power.
© 2008 The Guardian