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Musharraf steps down as Pakistani army chief

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Reuters)Nov. 28: - General Pervez Musharraf finally quit as Pakistan army chief on Wednesday, trading the post for a second five-year term as president and fulfilling a promise many Pakistanis doubted he would keep.

He passed the baton of command to his hand-picked successor, General Ashfaq Kayani, at a ceremony at army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 coup, is to be sworn in as civilian president on Thursday, having relinquished his position in the one institution that guaranteed his power.

"The system continues, people come and go, everyone has to go, every good thing comes to an end, everything is mortal," a tearful Musharraf told top brass and government leaders at the change-of-command ceremony.

The opposition parties of ex-prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif welcomed the resignation. They are both mulling their participation in a January 8 general election they say can't be fair under emergency rule that Musharraf imposed on November 3.

"It is a pleasant moment in the history of Pakistan. Now our army will get a full-time general as its leader," Bhutto told reporters in Karachi.

Musharraf's power and influence in the nuclear-armed country, which is key to the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda and its strategy in neighbouring Afghanistan, are bound to be diminished. The question is by how much.

"Naturally, the support of the army, that's what has been vital," said a former army commander, Mirza Aslam Beg, who declined to take power when President Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq was killed in a 1988 plane crash.

Beg said he expected significant changes, beginning with more aggressive opposition demands to end emergency rule. Musharraf is due to address the nation on Thursday and he could use the occasion to end the emergency.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who had been urging Musharraf to resign as military chief, was pleased by the move.

"The president certainly considers that to be a good step," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "President Musharraf followed through on his commitment to remove the uniform. It was significant for him."

Perino repeated the White House's call for Musharraf to end emergency rule in Pakistan.

Government officials said Musharraf's resignation would have no impact on efforts to combat terrorism.

Pakistani stock investors also welcomed the resignation as a step towards stability. The major share index ended 0.63 percent up, boosted by talk the emergency was about to be lifted.

NEEDS SUPPORT

It has been a messy transition.

Musharraf had assured Washington that everything would be done according to the constitution, which obliged him to quit the army before the end of the year.

The trouble was he had to suspend the constitution, declare emergency powers and purge the Supreme Court to make it happen.

Otherwise the judges might have annulled his October 6 re-election by the outgoing parliament on the grounds that he contested it while still a serving officer.

How long he will be president will depend on the parliament that emerges from elections, particularly as Bhutto and Sharif, whom Musharraf ousted in 1999, have been allowed back.

Musharraf will need support in what analysts expect to be a hung parliament. He could face impeachment over manoeuvres to stay in power which rivals say violated the constitution.

Ordinary Pakistanis welcomed Musharraf's departure from the army and some said it was time he left politics too.

"I think his role in Pakistani politics is ending now, and it's only a matter of time before he will be kicked out by the people, or by the army itself," said Abdul Aziz Khan, a retired banker in Karachi.

Musharraf's trump card remains the military, which backed his use of emergency powers. Having run the country for more than half the 60 years since its creation in 1947, the military has an ingrained scepticism when it comes to civilian leaders.

The poker-faced, chain-smoking Kayani, well regarded by U.S. counterparts, is seen as loyal to Musharraf.

Musharraf has said that he expects Pakistan to be governed by a troika, made up of himself, Kayani and the new prime minister.

In those circumstances, it is unlikely a prime minister would go against Musharraf unless they were sure the army had come to regard him as a liability. That might require big street protests or a withdrawal of support from Washington.

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