ISLAMABAD, August 18 – Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf resigned on Monday, bringing the curtain down on a turbulent nine years in power to avoid the first impeachment in the nuclear-armed nation’s history.
The stony-faced former general announced the move in a lengthy address on national television, saying that the charges against him would never stand but that he wanted to spare Pakistan a damaging battle with the ruling coalition.
The departure of the close US ally set off celebrations in Pakistani cities, yet it was far from certain what would come next for a nation whose role in the "war on terror" has been increasingly questioned by Washington.
"After viewing the situation and consulting legal advisers and political allies, with their advice I have decided to resign," Musharraf, wearing a sober suit and tie, said close to the end of his one-hour address.
"I leave my future in the hands of the people."
There was no immediate reaction from the ruling coalition government, which easily defeated Musharraf’s allies at the polls in February and had been pushing since even before then to bring him down.
"If we continue with the politics of confrontation, we will not save the country," the 65-year-old Musharraf said. "People will never pardon this government if they fail to do so."
His resignation came after the coalition said it was ready to press ahead with impeachment as early as Tuesday. It was not known if Musharraf had concluded a deal that would save him from prosecution in the days ahead.
But several close aides said that Musharraf was not set to go into exile as several of Pakistan’s former leaders have done. "He is not going anywhere," one aide said.
The president’s troubles began last year when he sacked judges in the courts who opposed him, clearing the way for his re-election last year while still holding a dual role as head of the country’s powerful armed forces.
The move set off mass protests in the streets that built into a national crisis which saw Musharraf declare a state of emergency in November.
But he was compelled to resign as army chief within weeks, and when his administration was seen to have bungled the handling of the December assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto, his fate seemed to be sealed.
Voters underscored his unpopularity at the ballot box in February, handing the parties of Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif — who was premier when Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup — a massive victory.
The leaders of the coalition, Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari, later met in the capital Islamabad. Television footage showed them smiling broadly and shaking hands but they made no immediate comment.
The possible impeachment charges against Musharraf were expected to be related to his sacking of the judges, but in his speech he strongly defended every aspect of his time in power — even the coup nine years ago.
He said he had helped establish law and order, improve democracy and human rights and burnish the country’s international stature.
"On the map of the world Pakistan is now an important country, by the grace of Allah," Musharraf said.
The president was also backed into a corner by the resurgency of Islamic militants in the tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, who launched a massive wave of attacks last year that left more than 1,000 dead.
Musharraf’s strong public stance against Islamic militancy inevitably made him enemies.
He survived three assassination attempts while holding what some have called the most dangerous job in the world, and went from being a backer of the Taliban to a close US ally after the September 11 attacks in 2001.
In his address, Musharraf rejected criticism that he had undermined democracy in Pakistan and insisted he had acted in "good faith" while trying to fight the challenges of militancy and an unsteady economy.
Cheering crowds poured into the streets in some places after his announcement, but there was little immediate reaction from outside the country — the second most populous Islamic nation and the only one with an atom bomb.
"We hope that the resignation of President Musharraf… leads to a strengthening of the civilian government and democracy in Pakistan," said foreign ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen in neighbouring Afghanistan.
Musharraf’s resignation was to be formally handed in to parliament later in the day. Bhutto’s son Bilawal said his successor would be from her party but there was no immediate indication about any candidates.