New Pakistan Parliament Set to Convene

( AP )- Pakistan's new parliament convenes Monday, setting the stage for a power struggle between U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf and a new coalition government that has vowed to assail his already diminished powers.

At stake are the future course and political stability of this nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people, which is struggling with economic problems and rising Islamic militancy at a time when the U.S. is counting on its assistance in the war on terror.

On Saturday, a bomb exploded in the back garden of an Italian restaurant crowded with foreigners in the capital, Islamabad, killing a Turkish woman and wounding 12 others, including five Americans. Such attacks have led many Pakistanis to question Musharraf's alliance with the U.S.

Parliamentary elections last month in which his allies were routed illustrated the growing unhappiness with the former general, who has dominated Pakistan's politics in eight years of military rule. But the transition to democracy promises to be politically turbulent as Musharraf maneuvers to cling to the presidency amid the ambitions of the new civilian leaders.

Voters want lawmakers to quickly dismantle Musharraf's "one-man system" and focus their energy on bringing down double-digit inflation and tackling terrorism, said Mehdi Hasan, a prominent political analyst.

"But I am not optimistic," Hasan said, noting that Pakistan's 60-year history is littered with failed political dawns. "It will take great efforts for the leaders of the parties to adjust and accommodate each other."

The outgoing speaker of the National Assembly will swear in the newly elected lawmakers Monday. Parliament will only get down to the real business of lawmaking once the new government takes office later in the month.

The parties set to lead it, however, have already outlined a set of priorities that could make for uncomfortable news to Musharraf and his Western backers.

The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto won the most seats in the election. It plans to form a coalition with the party of another former premier, Nawaz Sharif, and a smaller party from the northwest - where Taliban-style militants pose an increasing threat.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party has said its top priority will be to seek a U.N. investigation into her death in a gun-and-suicide-bomb attack on Dec. 27.

The coalition also hopes to amend the constitution to strip Musharraf of his power to dissolve the country's parliament and to dismiss the prime minister. The National Security Council, which gives the military a formal say in policy, may also be axed.

The coalition's most explosive plan is the restoration of some 60 senior judges who were purged from the courts by Musharraf when he declared emergency rule last November.

Musharraf swept aside the Supreme Court as it prepared to rule whether he was eligible for the five-year presidential term he won in an October vote in the outgoing parliament.

Few believe he would tolerate the reinstatement of the ousted chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, whose defiance of Musharraf's efforts to fire him made him a popular hero. Chaudhry has been under house arrest for more than four months.

But Musharraf has shown no sign of heeding calls to resign from Sharif, the prime minister he ousted in a 1999 coup.

A push to return the judges to their posts is fraught with legal uncertainties, particularly if judges who were drafted after the emergency join Musharraf in resisting.

Bhutto's widower and political successor, Asif Ali Zardari, signed an agreement last weekend with Sharif promising to move a parliamentary resolution on the issue within 30 days of the new government taking office. But they have yet to explain how it can be done.

Members of the former ruling party point to how Sharif and Bhutto fought bitterly for power in the 1990s to argue that the newfound unity of their parties could prove short-lived.

A debate is already brewing over who should be prime minister. Makhdoom Amin Fahim, a longtime Bhutto loyalist who was the initial front-runner, is resisting pressure from Sharif's party to withdraw from the race.

Musharraf has appealed to the coalition partners to put aside politics and focus on governing. Meanwhile, his outside support appears to be diminishing as well.

Just months ago, the United States publicly championed Musharraf as an "indispensable" ally. Now, members of the Bush administration barely mention him while working to gain the favor of the newly empowered parties, even though officials say they still intend to work with the former army chief.

Musharraf issued an order last year telling courts to terminate long-pending corruption cases against former government officials. A judge quashed the last of seven long-pending cases against Zardari on Friday.

The move was seen at the time as paving the way for a U.S.-brokered deal for Musharraf and Bhutto to govern in tandem, and her successors have been careful not to rule out that possibility - provided they are able to diminish his role first.

"If the parliament is strengthened ... and the presidency is divested of the unconstitutional powers, there may be no incentive to impeach the president," said Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's party.

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