RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (AFP)
A retired Pakistani General who opposes President Pervez Musharraf said he would "not be surprised" if Musharraf had engineered terror attacks to manipulate his image in the West. Former Lieutenant General Faiz Ali Chishti heads the influential Pakistan Ex-Servicemen Society, which last week issued a blunt open letter signed by more than 100 senior officers calling on Musharraf to quit.
The statement fuelled Western speculation that Musharraf may be losing support in the military following his resignation as army chief in November, a potential blow with parliamentary elections only three weeks away.
Pakistan has been buffetted by more than 50 suicide attacks in the past year, culminating in the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto on December 27, which led to planned January 8 general elections being delayed.
"Musharraf is an intellectually dishonest person. He is a clever ruler, who makes the US and the West believe that they can only effectively deal with Al-Qaeda as long as he is in power," Chishti told AFP in an interview."But what is Al-Qaeda and who are Taliban? I will not be surprised if this clever ruler is behind all suicide attacks,"he said.
The government blames Bhutto's killing on an allegedly Al-Qaeda-linked tribal warlord, Baitullah Mehsud, but many of Bhutto's supporters have accused the government or parts of the military of involvement.
Musharraf, who seized power in a coup in 1999, has rejected those claims, and last week he angrily brushed aside the calls for his resignation by Chishti and the other generals.
In another interview with the BBC he said that the retired officers had no clout with today's 500,000-strong, nuclear-armed military.
"They are insignificant personalities," Musharraf told the Financial Times in an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "Most of them are ones who served under me and I kicked them out... They are insignificant. I am not even bothered by them."
But Chishti -- a former federal minister and the one-time corps commander for Rawalpindi, a key post in the Pakistani army -- urged current and former servicemen to push for change.
"My request as head of the society, is that retired General Pervez Musharraf should also step down as President," Chishti said.
Chishti himself is no stranger to military rulers, having supervised the imposition of martial law in July 1977 in Pakistan. He went on to become a close associate of late dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.But he said that the situation now was different, partly because of Musharraf's close ties to Washington.
"We request all ex-servicemen and even those, who are in uniform to vote for persons, who are fit to do something for this country and people."
He rejected Western "propaganda" about Musharraf being able to safeguard Pakistan's nuclear weapons from Islamic extremists, saying it was the army's job.
"Musharraf is in league with the US and the West for the sake of his own survival. The majority of Pakistanis feel he... has been taking illegal, unconstitutional and unlawful actions for his survival," Chishti said.
"Is he carrying these nuclear weapons in his pocket? The answer is no," he said.
Chishti also accused Musharraf of "taking sides" and campaigning for the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party ahead of the elections on February 18.
The government meanwhile has rejected the ex-servicemen's claims. Information Minister Nisar Memon told state media that their demands for Musharraf to resign were unconstitutional, adding that he was "dismayed" by their "lack of understanding of national issues."