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Thu 21 Feb 2008 11:40 AM

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Plans for anti-Musharraf coalition

Opposition leaders meet to discuss joining forces to topple Pakistan's president.

The widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto prepared for talks Thursday with fellow opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on a coalition that could topple Pakistan's US-allied president.

The leaders of the two parties which won the most seats in Monday's general elections in the nuclear-armed nation are mulling an alliance after soundly defeating President Pervez Musharraf's backers at the polls.

With other smaller parties on their side, they are close to the two-thirds majority they would need to seek Musharraf's impeachment, leaving him in the most precarious position since he seized power in a coup in 1999.

Musharraf has rejected calls to quit in the wake of his allies' defeat. He has been backed for most of his time in office by the US as a key ally against Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network.

The embattled leader, who stepped down as army chief late last year, extended an offer of cooperation to his rivals on Wednesday, calling for a "harmonious coalition" after the polls.

But his foes have shown little sign of wanting to work with him so far.

Bhutto's widowed husband Asif Ali Zardari, who leads the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), told reporters he would meet Sharif on Thursday evening, "and we are going to find solutions to the problems of Pakistan."

A PPP official said they were "going to discuss a potential coalition."

Bhutto was assassinated at a rally in December, giving her party a wave of sympathy votes but depriving Pakistan of its most charismatic politician and the West of a key moderate democrat.

With votes counted in 258 out of 272 constituencies, the PPP and Sharif's party had a combined total of 153 seats, the election commission said.

The former ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q) and its allies together had 58.

Any coalition would likely include a moderate ethnic Pashtun movement that ousted hardline Islamist parties in North West Frontier Province - a region where Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants are holed up.

"The foremost priority for us now is to restore peace in this province, which is now known worldwide for producing extremists and terrorists," Asfandyar Wali Khan, chief of the Awami National Party (ANP), told AFP during an interview.

The Musharraf regime has been a bulwark of the Washington-led global "war on terror" and Pakistani troops have killed hundreds of Islamist militants in the troubled tribal regions bordering Afghanistan since 2001, angering many in the region and fuelling anti-Western sentiment.

Zardari indicated any alliance could also bring on board Musharraf's former allies in the southern city of Karachi to nudge it above the two-thirds mark.

Bhutto's husband said his party had decided he would not be prime minister in any coalition government.

He is not eligible to stand for the position because he is not a member of parliament, although he has the option of trying to enter the legislature in a by-election.

But key differences remain between the two main camps, focused on Sharif's campaign promise that his first act in government would be to seek the restoration of Pakistan's deposed top judge.

Musharraf sacked chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry under a state of emergency in November when the Supreme Court had looked set to strip him of the second presidential term he won in a disputed election.

If Chaudhry gets his job back he could overturn that result and deprive Musharraf of his post - the ideal revenge for Sharif, the man the then-General Musharraf ousted in 1999.

Party officials said the PPP was not keen on making any coalition deal that would involve a public commitment to bringing Chaudhry back onto the scene.

Analysts say Musharraf will try to divide Zardari and Sharif and persuade Zardari to form a coalition with his own parties.

Bhutto and Musharraf had been having talks on a power-sharing deal before her assassination.

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