Islamabad, Nov 21: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf returned from Saudi Arabia today with the prospect he could be sworn in as civilian leader in days, having already freed thousands of detainees held under emergency rule.
While critical of his imposition of the emergency on November 3, Washington has given General Musharraf, a crucial ally against al Qaeda, space to put things right before a parliamentary election on January 8 that the opposition could boycott.
''He has said he's going to take off his uniform, he's said there would be elections. Today he released prisoners, and so far I have found him to be a man of his word,'' President George W. Bush told ABC News in an interview overnight.
Yesterday, Pakistan announced it had released most of more than 5,000 detained lawyers, opposition and rights activists, and a remaining 2,000 would be freed soon.
Although Pakistan is racked with militancy, one of Musharraf's main aims in declaring the emergency was to purge the Supreme Court of judges who appeared set to annul his re-election by parliament last month.
The court, now packed with pro-government judges, is expected to strike down the last of six petitions tomorrow.
The president's spokesman suggested Musharraf could quit as army chief and become a civilian president this week, if the court acted quickly.
''The moment the notification is made, he will take oath as a civilian president,'' spokesman Rashid Qureshi said, adding that it could happen a day after the court's clearance.
FISHING FOR FRIENDS
Musharraf's visit to Saudi Arabia had sparked speculation he would either reach out to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif or seek to prolong his exile there.
Musharraf is concerned that he won't have enough friends in the next parliament.
He has sought support from another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, but his strategy up to now has been to marginalise Sharif, the man he deposed in a 1999 coup.
Chances of a deal with Bhutto, the leader of the largest opposition party, receded after he imposed emergency rule, though it could still be revived.
Musharraf allowed Bhutto to return to Pakistan in October shielded from prosecution in old graft cases she says were politically motivated. Once back, though, she became increasingly confrontational, and spent a few days under house arrest.
The extent of Musharraf's political isolation since Nov. 3 has become so evident that many political analysts had believed his aim in going to Saudi Arabia was to engage Sharif, who has rebuffed him several times.
Western governments fear that stifling democracy any longer could play into the hands of Islamist militants threatening to destabilise nuclear-armed Pakistan, but Bush was keeping faith with a valued ally.
''He has done more for democracy in Pakistan than any modern leader has. Are we happy with the emergency rule? No we're not,'' Bush said.
''And do I understand how important he is in fighting extremists and radicals? I do. And do I believe that he's going to end up getting Pakistan back on the road to democracy? I certainly hope so.'' The Commonwealth of 53 nations, mostly former British colonies, has threatened Pakistan with suspension unless Musharraf repeals emergency rule and takes other steps.
Musharraf spent less than 24 hours in Saudi Arabia, meeting King Abdullah and other key officials including intelligence chief Murqin bin Abdul-Aziz, and made a fleeting pilgrimage to Mecca before coming home last morning.
While direct contact with Sharif appeared unlikely, and Qureshi said none was planned, go-betweens could have been used.