Pakistani political leader vows return
LONDON – An embittered former Pakistani prime minister vowed Thursday to return home from exile next month to fight the attempt by President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to extend his military rule.Nawaz Sharif said he would set foot in Pakistan on Sept. 10 after seven years away, setting up a three-cornered fight for power in a front-line state of the U.S.-led war on terrorism.”The battle lines in Pakistan are clearly drawn. On one side you have the people loyal to democracy … on the other side are the forces of a dying dictatorship,” Sharif said at a news conference called to discuss his plans.He condemned an announcement by Benazir Bhutto, another exiled ex-premier and Sharif’s longtime political rival, that she was close to a power-sharing deal with Musharraf, who agrees with her relatively liberal, pro-Western outlook.Bhutto claimed Musharraf agreed to step down as head of Pakistan’s army and end military rule eight years after the general ousted Sharif in a bloodless coup. A spokesman for Musharraf said Thursday no decision had been made but it was being discussed.Sharif, who heads a conservative, secularist party, said he would lead opposition to any agreement that prolonged Musharraf’s regime.”Musharraf’s uniform is not an issue. The real issue is his illegitimate rule,” Sharif said. “This man Musharraf is on his way out. No one should try to rescue him.”Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled last week that Musharraf’s government could not prevent Sharif and his politician brother from returning home.However, government officials have said Sharif could be re-arrested upon reaching Pakistani soil on charges dating from the 1999 coup.Sharif dismissed the threat, saying that in jail he might become a powerful symbol for Musharraf’s opponents.”I will go to Pakistan. I will launch my struggle irrespective of if he arrests me or doesn’t … We are not scared of what will happen to us – we have seen enough of it,” Sharif said.The Bush administration is publicly neutral on Sharif and says the question of whether he returns is up to the Pakistani people in accordance with their constitution.The administration is leery of Sharif, however, because of his past history and reputation. Sharif was viewed as ineffectual against terrorism while in office and tarnished by persistent allegations of corruption.Sharif said he would fly to Islamabad shortly before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, accompanied by senior members of his party and a contingent of mostly foreign journalists. From there, he plans to drive to his power base in the eastern city of Lahore.Dozens of Sharif supporters danced and distributed candies in the streets of Lahore to celebrate his announcement. Activists earlier paraded a chained lion – one of his political symbols – and chanted “Go, Musharraf, go!”In comments aired Thursday evening but recorded earlier, Musharraf said he was “confident that we will be able to maintain political stability” as the country prepares for a presidential ballot by legislators and for parliamentary elections at the end of the year.”My election and the election for the National Assembly must be held on time, and there should be no disturbance,” Musharraf said on state-owned Pakistan Television.But he also alluded to his emergency powers, with which he could impose martial law to quell political unrest. “Martial law or emergency are not the future of Pakistan, but Pakistan comes first,” he said.In Washington, State Department spokesman Tom Casey declined to comment directly on the idea of the U.S.-allied Musharraf stepping down as Pakistan’s army chief. “These are decisions that are still being worked through and have yet to be made, and I’d simply let the Pakistani political process work through these issues,” he said.Before the Supreme Court ruled, Musharraf had vowed to prevent both Bhutto and Sharif from entering Pakistan, blaming them for corruption and economic problems that nearly bankrupted the country in the 1990s, when each had two turns as prime minister.The president’s political base has eroded since he tried unsuccessfully tried to remove the high court’s chief judge earlier this year, touching off widespread street protests against military rule.With his popularity slumping, Musharraf has edged toward an alliance with Bhutto and her moderate Pakistan People’s Party in hopes that he can be re-elected as a strong civilian president backed by a friendly parliament.Under the proposed pact, the government would drop corruption cases against Bhutto to allow her to return home by December and abolish regulations that prevent her from serving a third term as prime minister.Bhutto says the confidence Musharraf enjoys in the international community and Pakistan’s army makes him a force for stability. But Sharif denounces the leader as a dictator who has led Pakistan into crisis, and his return could trigger political turmoil.Bhutto’s party and the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League-Q could combine for a victory in parliamentary elections. But Sharif controls the country’s other main party, the Muslim League-N, which could form the core of an antagonistic opposition bloc able to mobilize large-scale street demonstrations.Although he is a secularist, Sharif has aligned with Islamist parties that accuse Musharraf of betraying Pakistan’s national interests by allying with Washington and turning against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United State.