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Pakistan holds breath for ex-premier Sharif's return

Tension grows over his planned arrival Monday in defiance of President Musharraf, who may be unwilling to arrest him over fears of a backlash.

September 09, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

When former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was forced into exile nearly eight years ago, few of his compatriots were particularly sorry to see him go.

Many Pakistanis, weary of what they considered a corrupt and inefficient government, had welcomed Sharif's ouster at the hands of a no-nonsense military man, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who promised moderation and stability.

Now, Sharif, 57, is poised to make what his followers expect will be a triumphal return -- a homecoming that is certain to trigger more turmoil in what has already been the most violent and turbulent year of Musharraf's rule.

The travails of Musharraf, long regarded by the U.S. as a key ally in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, are being viewed with considerable trepidation in Washington.

The Bush administration, while expressing broad hopes for a transition to democratic rule in Pakistan, has put little visible pressure on Musharraf to ensure that takes place.

Parliamentary elections are to be held by early next year, but there are major doubts as to whether they will be free and fair. In the coming month, Musharraf intends to have himself voted to another presidential term by the outgoing national and provincial assemblies, which he controls. He has so far resisted opposition demands that he relinquish his position as head of the military before doing so.

Sharif's return is an explicit challenge to Musharraf remaining in power, in uniform or not.

If the former prime minister's plane from London touches down Monday at the airport just outside the capital, Islamabad, as planned, he could face arrest. The government has demanded that he honor a pledge to remain in exile in Saudi Arabia for a decade, and has reopened corruption cases against him, with the threat of reinstating a life sentence that was previously handed down.

Authorities also issued an arrest warrant for Sharif's politician brother, Shahbaz, in a murder case.

On Saturday, Information Minister Mohammed Ali Durrani again warned Sharif to stay away.

But many observers believe that Musharraf, whose popularity and political stature are at an all-time low, would be unwilling to risk the unrest that could erupt if he moves against Sharif.

"I don't think [Sharif] will be arrested," said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "It's so politically charged, and the last thing Musharraf wants now is the start of another mass movement against him."

Sharif's right to return was endorsed by Pakistan's reinvigorated Supreme Court, led by a chief justice Musharraf tried to oust in March, a move that generated a nationwide pro-democracy groundswell.

The court, which is hearing a multitude of cases relating to Musharraf holding public office while retaining his role as army chief, specifically warned the government against creating any impediment to Sharif's return.

Among the former prime minister's retinue, the jubilant mood has been laced with more than a little anxiety.

"Very soon," said Nadir Chaudhri, a senior aide who planned to travel with Sharif from London, "we will see what kind of a reception the general intends for us."

Sharif's followers plan a celebratory cavalcade from the capital to his hometown, Lahore, a journey that normally takes about five hours, but probably will turn into a daylong enterprise if crowds, as expected, gather along the motorcade route.

Already, though, there are signs that a confrontation is brewing.

Members of Sharif's Pakistani Muslim League faction say authorities have been rounding up his followers, detaining several hundred. One party official said organizers had hired a bulldozer in case the police or opponents tried to put up barricades to prevent Sharif's supporters from lining the roadway.

Sharif's return threatens to overshadow what only weeks ago seemed to be the central issue in Pakistan's complex political scene: whether former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is in self-imposed exile, could strike a power-sharing deal with Musharraf.

Both sides say such an arrangement is close to fruition. But Bhutto and Musharraf have encountered opposition from their supporters to any kind of accord.

Bhutto, for her part, seeks to counter accusations that she is going against her principles by making deals with a man she has repeatedly called a dictator.

"In politics, the doors of dialogue are kept open," said Bhutto, who has shuttled between London and another home in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, during months of talks. "But we are not compromising core principles."

But Bhutto, whose father was deposed and later executed by another army general, Zia ul-Haq, has already suffered a decline in prestige because of her association with Musharraf.

And her dealings with Musharraf "have really raised Nawaz's stock," said Stephen Cohen, a Pakistan expert at the Brookings Institution.

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