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Sharif registers for Pakistan election

The Baltimore Sun

LAHORE, Pakistan -- The day after returning to Pakistan after seven years in exile, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif registered yesterday for elections, although he said his party could still boycott the Jan. 8 vote.

Sharif spoke in his family's home, which had been confiscated by the government while he was away. He vowed to fight military rule and President Pervez Musharraf, the army general who deposed him in a bloodless coup in 1999.

Sharif spoke out more forcefully against Musharraf than another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, who had been negotiating a power-sharing deal with the president until he imposed emergency rule Nov. 3.

Unlike Bhutto, Sharif called for the restoration of the judges fired by Musharraf because they would not sign a new oath to him. Sharif said this was the major issue on which he would not bend.

Sharif said the fired judges, now under house arrest, should be "restored with dignity and honor."

Sharif said the judiciary was the key issue on which he and Bhutto did not agree. The parties are expected to decide soon whether to participate in or boycott the elections, especially if Musharraf does not lift the state of emergency.

If their two political parties agree to work together, they would pose a serious challenge for Musharraf's ruling party.

The party that wins the elections will select a prime minister who will rule alongside Musharraf, who is expected to step down as army chief and be sworn in as president Thursday. If the opposition parties boycott the election, it could turn the elections into a farce and increase instability in Pakistan.

Sharif's return Sunday represents a major challenge for Musharraf, who has faced a deepening political crisis since he first tried to fire the country's independent chief justice in March.

Musharraf deposed Sharif after he refused to allow Musharraf's plane to land, almost causing it to run out of fuel. Sharif accepted exile in Saudi Arabia rather than serve a life sentence on charges of hijacking, terrorism and corruption.

Musharraf sent Sharif back to Saudi Arabia when he tried to fly home Sept. 10, but Sunday he bowed to the pressure of the international community to allow Sharif to come home and possibly contest the elections.

Although the decision could backfire on Musharraf, he also has earned credibility for allowing two major opposition leaders, Bhutto and Sharif, to return from exile. He is facing international condemnation for imposing emergency rule, which he says was necessary to control Islamic militants and a hostile judiciary, but critics say the move was aimed at purging the courts of independent judges.

Although Musharraf is seen as a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Islamic militants have gained strength in recent months as Musharraf has struggled with a political crisis.

Sharif said yesterday that Pakistan should consider changing its approach in the war on terrorism, possibly holding talks with militants.

Kim Barker writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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