ISLAMABAD, Pakistan With impeachment proceedings looming, the pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to quit built Friday as both his rivals and allies confirmed back-channel talks were under way that could ease him out.
Musharraf's spokesman said reports the former army chief's resignation was imminent were "baseless," but it was clear he has little support. The last of Pakistan's four provincial assemblies passed a resolution against him, and a key ally acknowledged the president lacks the support to survive a vote in parliament.
The political uncertainty adds to an already volatile situation in Pakistan. Officials said Friday that 10 days of fighting in a tribal region near the Afghan border have killed hundreds and displaced more than 200,000. It was one of the bloodiest episodes since Pakistan deployed troops along the border in support of the war on terror nearly seven years ago.
Coalition officials said they could present an impeachment motion to parliament as early as next week and the process could be over by month's end. But officials in the president's office say impeachment could drag on for months because the procedure is not laid out in the constitution.
Musharraf would be the first president to be impeached in Pakistan's turbulent 61-year history. The party of ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup, has even suggested he be tried for treason, which carries a maximum penalty of death. Sharif's party is a partner in the ruling coalition.
Much depends on whether Musharraf decides to fight and whether his rivals can stomach granting him immunity and the freedom to stay in Pakistan if he quits.
"There are a lot of background talks going on, whereby a way is trying to be found so that there is no impeachment," Sen. Tariq Azim of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q party said Friday.
He said the president's possible resignation, with legal protections, was an option, as was reducing the presidency to a figurehead role. However, coalition officials rejected the idea of trimming his powers, insisting Musharraf must go.
PML-Q secretary-general Sen. Mushahid Hussain said one possibility was that Musharraf would resign and be allowed to stay in Pakistan "in peace."
The president's spokesman, Rashid Qureshi, denied Musharraf was stepping down and rejected as "nonsense" claims that he sought immunity from prosecution. "These unsubstantiated reports are totally baseless and malicious," Qureshi said.
Musharraf dominated Pakistan for years after seizing power in the bloodless military coup, gaining favor from the U.S. for backing the war on terror. He gave up his role as army chief last year but had already become very unpopular.
Many Pakistanis blamed rising violence on his alliance with Washington against the Taliban and al-Qaida. His popularity hit new lows in 2007 when he ousted judges and imposed emergency rule in bids to avoid challenges to his presidency.
Washington has toed a publicly neutral line since the coalition declared its impeachment plans, as has Pakistan's army.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman at the National Security Council at the White House, said it was an internal Pakistani matter.
Stripping Musharraf of the presidency on the grounds of violating the constitution or "gross misconduct" would require a two-thirds majority in a joint sitting of the federal parliament.
Hussain said Musharraf could not survive such a vote.
"As far as the numbers game is concerned, it is all over," he said.
But he added that Musharraf's legal aides believe he could put forth a strong court case against impeachment.
Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, who heads the PML-Q and met with the president Friday, left open the possibility of a petition to the Supreme Court.
Azim said all sides agree an impeachment battle would strain the country at a time of economic turbulence and mounting security woes.
"So it is in the best interest of Pakistan that some way is found whereby this mode of confrontation can be changed or can be more conciliatory," he said.
Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar, a member of the largest party in the ruling coalition, said the coalition was in touch with Musharraf's aides.
"We have conveyed to them that the coalition is determined for impeachment, and if he wants to save himself, the best way is for him to quit," he said.
The coalition has not voiced a united position on whether it would be willing to grant Musharraf immunity from prosecution.
Asked if Musharraf could get legal protections, Mukhtar indicated he would not be opposed.
But on Thursday, Sharif said he opposed granting "safe passage" to Musharraf, claiming the president had compromised the nation's sovereignty, a reference to Musharraf's partnership with the U.S.
Musharraf has the power to dissolve parliament, but that would be controversial and would require the support of the army.
There have been no signs the military plans to rescue its former chief from impeachment. However, observers say the army would not want to see Musharraf humiliated or face criminal charges.