President Zardari hands over nuclear powers to prime minister
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Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (photo), has handed over control of the country's nuclear arsenal to his prime minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani. The move comes as an amnesty shielding the president and key allies from prosecution for graft expires.
AFP- President Asif Ali Zardari gave up control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal Saturday in a bid to fend off mounting pressures threatening to weaken his rule further and complicate the war on the Taliban.
Zardari took the decision as an amnesty protecting him and key aides from corruption cases expired and risked flinging the country, struggling to contain a Taliban insurgency in the northwest, into fresh political crisis.
The presidency announced that control of the National Command Authority, which analysts and lawyers confirmed was responsible for nuclear weapons, had shifted to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.
"The president has handed over his power regarding the national command and control authority to me and has issued an ordinance," Gilani told reporters.
Islamabad earlier this month rejected a report in The New Yorker magazine that raised fears of a militant seizure of Pakistan's nuclear weapons and suggested that the US had a hand in protecting the arsenal.
Analysts say Zardari can only hope to survive increasing unpopularity within his party and a reportedly strained relationship with the powerful military by making good on electoral promises to devolve greater power to parliament.
Zardari's predecessor, military ruler Pervez Musharraf enforced a state of emergency in 2007, introducing a 17th amendment to the constitution that gives the president the power to dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister.
"We are going in the right direction. There is no threat to democracy and to the present government," said Gilani, a member of Zardari's Pakistan People's Party (PPP) but who is said to enjoy closer relations with the military.
"He believes in the balance of power between the presidency and the parliament and he is committed to undo the 17th amendment," he added.
Zardari's approval ratings are rock bottom as Pakistan struggles with Taliban violence, a recession and stalled efforts on reform.
He spent several years in jail for corruption and is still referred to as "Mr Ten Percent" because of his reputation for taking kickbacks on deals.
Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar hailed the transfer of the National Command Authority as "a giant leap forward to empower the elected parliament and the prime minister".
But senior lawyers said the nuclear move was window dressing.
"The president wants to give the impression that he is empowering his prime minister. This transfer is basically cosmetic," said lawyer Akram Sheikh.
The president was quoted by state media as saying he would revoke the amendment in December.
The corruption amnesty passed by Musharraf in 2007 and known as the National Reconciliation Ordinance, or NRO, expired as Pakistan celebrated the first day of the Muslim festival of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha.
It had quashed charges against Zardari, his wife and ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated two months later, and other politicians in an apparent gesture of political reconciliation.
The PPP went on to win elections in 2008, restoring civilian rule in a country governed for most of its existence by the army.
But today the government is seen as too weak to secure an extension of the NRO in parliament and pending another decree, the end of the amnesty allows cases against beneficiaries to be reopened and convictions could be restored.
Although there is no immediate likelihood of cases being reopened against Zardari, who enjoys immunity as president, opponents say the supreme court could yet declare his election illegal.
More than 8,000 people benefited from the amnesty that was connected to 3,478 cases ranging from murder, embezzlement, abuse of power and write-offs of bank loans worth millions of dollars.
Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar were among more than 30 politicians who had cases against them withdrawn.
Analyst Talat Masood said the distraction posed by possible litigation would divert attention from the battle against Taliban and Al-Qaeda-linked fighters whose bomb attacks have killed more than 2,550 people in the last 29 months.
"It will affect the campaign against insurgency and militancy. The opposition and other forces will continue pressure on the government to quit. Zardari will have to shed his powers to be able to survive," he said.