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Pakistani president turns over nuclear authority

Sunday, November 29, 2009

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's president relinquished command of its nuclear arsenal to the prime minister, a political ally, and signaled he was ready to shed more power as he faces growing pressure to resign.

The move came as an amnesty protecting President Asif Ali Zardari and thousands of others from graft charges expired Saturday, risking political turmoil that could distract the U.S.-allied nation from its fight against the Taliban and other militants near the Afghan border.

The political opposition called on Zardari to step down. He enjoys general immunity from prosecution as president, but the Supreme Court could choose to challenge his eligibility for the post since the amnesty decree by ex-military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf was never passed into law.

Zardari, 54, is languishing in opinion polls. He has been haunted by corruption allegations dating back to the governments of his late wife, Benazir Bhutto. He denies the allegations that he took kickbacks, saddling him with the nickname, "Mr. 10 Percent."

He also has found himself locked in a power struggle with the military, which has objected to his overtures toward rival nuclear neighbor India and acceptance of a multibillion dollar U.S. aid bill that came with conditions some fear impose controls over the army.

Zardari's office said the decision to transfer control of the National Command Authority to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was a step toward ceding sweeping presidential powers that had been adopted by Zardari's predecessor, Musharraf. The authority is a group of top military and political leaders who would make any decision to deploy nuclear weapons.

Gilani is a veteran lawmaker and member of Zardari's own party. He spent five years in prison under Musharraf's regime, accused of cronyism and abusing his authority when serving as parliament speaker.


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