Court decision hangs over Musharraf re-election bid

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ISLAMABAD, Sep 25 (Reuters) President Pervez Musharraf signed nomination papers today for his re-election and lawyers defended him against legal challenges mounted by Pakistani parties opposed to army rule.

Months of uncertainty lie ahead, as US ally General Musharraf struggles to keep control in nuclear-armed Pakistan, a country whose support is seen as crucial to the success of Western efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and crush al Qaeda.

The National Assembly, Senate and provincial assemblies are scheduled to hold the presidential vote on October 6, before they are dissolved for a general election due by mid-January.

A ruling party official told Reuters Musharraf signed the papers, to be submitted to the Election Commission on Thursday.

The government also named alternative candidates -- Senate Chairman Mohammadmian Soomro and National Assembly Speaker Chaudhry Amir Hussain -- in case the papers were not accepted.

The Supreme Court began hearing challenges to Musharraf's re-election on September 17 and a decision is expected soon.

Opposition party workers were in hiding after more than 100 were arrested in police raids that began at the weekend, said a spokesman for the party of Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister Musharraf ousted in a coup eight years ago.

Officials said they had planned to besiege the Election Commission and the Supreme Court and said the government wanted to stop them putting pressure on judges hearing the case.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in rare criticism of Musharraf's government, has said the arrests were troubling.

The US embassy called for the release of detainees and urged free and fair elections.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema, asked about the US criticism, said: ''Pakistan knows best.'' MILITARY The court is hearing three petitions: challenging Musharraf's right to retain the posts of president and army chief, the legality of being elected in uniform, and whether he can get a mandate from outgoing assemblies.

Three other petitions were dismissed on technicalities.

Attorney-General Malik Abdul Qayyum, representing the government, told the court the challenges lacked merit.

''They want to disrupt the election, they don't want this election to go ahead,'' Qayyum said.

Musharraf, whose main source of power is the military, has said he would quit the army after winning another term. Qayyum said if not re-elected, Musharraf would remain army chief until a new president nominated a commander.

Musharraf holds his dual office under a law that expires at the end of the year. His term as president expires on November 15.

If the court blocks Musharraf's re-election, analysts say he might impose emergency rule, or dissolve parliament and seek a mandate from the assemblies emerging from the general election.

Musharraf has held inconclusive talks with Benazir Bhutto, another former premier living in exile, about a possible post-election power-sharing arrangement.

Bhutto's party today named Makhdoom Amin Faheem, a senior aide to Bhutto, as its presidential candidate if the court disqualified Musharraf from contesting the election.

A statement from the party, however, said its legislators would nonetheless consider resigning even if Musharraf was not disqualified -- unless he accepted its proposals.

Bhutto, who plans to return home on October 18 after living more than eight years in exile, insists Musharraf should quit the army before seeking re-election, lift a ban on a person from becoming prime minister for a third time and grant immunity to civilians rulers of the country from 1988 to 1999.

Anti-Musharraf lawyers have already named a former judge of the Supreme Court, Wajihuddin Ahmed, as another challenger.

An opposition alliance led by Sharif's party has said it would resign if the Election Commission accepts Musharraf's nomination papers and said its Senators would vote for Ahmed.

An opposition walk-out would not stop the vote but it would rob it of credibility and detract from its legitimacy.

Reuters KK VP0022

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