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Pakistan names Asim Munir as new chief of powerful army

By Gibran Naiyyar Peshimam and Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -Pakistan named Lieutenant-General Asim Munir on Thursday as chief of its army, an organisation that plays a hugely influential role in the governance of the nuclear-armed nation.

Munir, who has previously headed both of Pakistan's powerful spy agencies, will replace General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who retires later this month after a six-year term, the defence ministry said.

Munir's appointment coincides with a dispute between the military and former prime minister Imran Khan, who blames the army for playing a part in his ouster earlier this year and who has been leading anti-government protests since then.

"It is based on merit, law and as per the constitution," Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told reporters after announcing Munir's appointment.

The army has historically played a huge role in both domestic and foreign politics, and Munir's appointment could impact Pakistan's fragile democracy, its relations with neighbours India and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, as well as its pivot towards China or the United States.

Munir is the 17th chief of the army since Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947, a period that has seen almost twice as many prime ministers in office. He was quartermaster general - in charge of supplies for the entire army - and served in an area disputed with India that borders China, as well as in major financial supporter Saudi Arabia.

'GAME OF POLITICS'

Little is known about Munir's foreign policy views, but he is considered close to outgoing chief Bajwa, who actively sought to repair frosty relations with Washington and pushed for better ties with arch-rival India, with which he even renewed a ceasefire deal last year.

Domestically, Bajwa also pledged to keep the military out of national politics but analysts remain sceptical.

"The army continues to be in the game of politics," said author and political analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. "Munir will now have to find a way to run a hybrid government without being unnecessarily visible."

Khan, who was wounded in a gun attack earlier this month during anti-government protests, is the latest in a long list of civilian leaders to blame the military for removing him from power. These include Nawaz Sharif, the longest-serving prime minister who was in power a total of 9 years over three tenures.

The army has denied any involvement in Khan's ouster.

Khan has planned a protest gathering on Saturday in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, home to the army's headquarters, as part of his campaign for early elections. He plans to march on the capital, Islamabad, from Rawalpindi.

"Munir faces two immediate challenges: restoring public trust in a military that has taken some major hits in popularity, and working to reduce tensions between the government and Imran Khan," said Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.

"This will help (Pakistan's) foreign relations because it shows Pakistan is making an effort to restore political stability," Kugelman added. "These are all good signs for Pakistan’s partners, which want to see more stability."

(Reporting by Gibran Peshimam and Asif Shahzad; Editing by Neil Fullick, Miral Fahmy and Gareth Jones)