Civilian presidency beckons for Pakistan's Musharraf

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ISLAMABAD, Nov 21 (Reuters) Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf returned from Saudi Arabia today expecting to be sworn in as a civilian leader in days, having already freed thousands of detainees held under emergency rule.

While critical of his imposition of the emergency on Nov.

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.

''And do I believe that he's going to end up getting Pakistan back on the road to democracy? I certainly hope so.'' Western governments fear that stifling democracy could play into the hands of Islamist militants threatening nuclear-armed Pakistan, but Bush was keeping faith with Musharraf.

The Commonwealth of 53 nations, mostly former British colonies, has threatened Pakistan with suspension unless Musharraf repeals emergency rule and takes other steps.

Caretaker prime minister Mohammadmian Soomro has asked Commonwealth ministers meeting in the Ugandan capital Kampala tomorrow to delay their decision, arguing that the situation was returning to normal.

Pakistan announced yestrday it had released most than 5,000 detained lawyers, opposition and rights activists, and the remaining 2,000 would be freed soon.

Although Pakistan is racked with militancy, one of Musharraf's aims in invoking an emergency was to purge a Supreme Court that appeared set to annul his re-election by parliament in October.

The court, now packed with pro-government judges, is expected to strike down the last of six annulment petitions tomorrow.

WEEKEND SWEARING-IN ''We hope the petition will be decided tomorrow, God willing, and if it's done then the president may take an oath as a civilian president, as he has himself said, on Saturday or Sunday,'' Attorney General Malik Qayyum told Reuters.

Police stopped Wajihuddin Ahmed, who ran against Musharraf in the election, from visiting former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and other sacked judges under house arrest today.

''We want restoration of superior judges and removal of all existing judges. They are not judges, they are dummies,'' Ahmed said, as police blocked him and a dozen lawyers.

Investors in the Karachi stock market, however, took heart from Bush's comments and the likelihood that Musharraf would be finally sworn in for a second term.

The main index gained just under 1.5 per cent to stand a little less than 3 per cent below pre-emergency levels.

While securing his position, Musharraf remains concerned that he will have few friends in the next parliament.

His visit to Saudi Arabia had sparked talk that he would either reach out to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif or seek to prolong his exile there.

Musharraf 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.

During less than 24 hours in Saudi Arabia, Musharraf met King Abdullah and other officials before returning home this morning. Spokesman Rashid Qureshi said there had been no contact with Sharif, who has rebuffed Musharraf in the past.

It is uncertain whether go-betweens spoke to Sharif.

Chances of a deal with Bhutto, leader of the biggest opposition party, have receded, but could 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.

After meeting British High Commissioner Robert Brinkley at her party headquarters in Karachi today, Bhutto said it was imperative Musharraf quit the army but she did not repeat a call for him to step down as president too.

REUTERS RJ RN2028

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