Pakistan's Zardari Takes His Finger Off the Nuclear Trigger

In the first major sign that he intends to give up some of his powers, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has removed himself from the nuclear chain of command, transferring his authority to the prime minister.

Under a law signed by former President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf, Zardari was chairman of the National Command Authority, the group that decides when to launch Pakistan's nuclear weapons. In a statement overnight, a Zardari spokesman said that transferring his authority represented a "giant leap forward to empower the elected Parliament and the Prime Minister."

Zardari has been under enormous pressure from the military and his political opponents to step down as president -- or shed the powers that Musharraf created with constitutional amendments. Those powers included the chairmanship of the National Command Authority as well as the ability to dismiss the parliament at any point. In the last few days, Zardari has signaled his intention to shed that dismissal ability within the next month, though that must be done by a parliamentary vote.

All together, according to a Zardari spokeswoman, the moves are designed to strengthen the prime minster and parliament and, slowly, reduce the role of the presidency to a more traditional one under a parliamentary system.

"We are going to focus on strengthening the party and make the president into a true symbol for the federation," says Farahnaz Ispahani, Zardari's spokeswoman.

But by shedding some of his powers, Zardari may also be saving his own job. The army -- the country's most powerful institution -- has been trying to push Zardari to resign, Pakistani officials say, and removing some of his powers may alleviate much of that pressure.

Zardari's apparent willingness to make himself more of a figurehead, though he would still lead the largest party in the country, comes as the law protecting him and some of his closest allies from corruption charges expires. The National Reconciliation Ordinance annulled corruption cases against him and his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, and allowed the two to return to the country from exile more than two years ago.

But some legal experts warn that since he could not have assumed power with the National Reconciliation Ordinance, and since it was never passed by parliament, the Supreme Court could rule he must answer the charges in court.

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