LONDON – Immediately after Pakistan's highest court ruled he could return, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said he would go home soon to lead his party's campaign to oust President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who exiled Sharif eight years ago.
Speaking to The Associated Press in his London office on Thursday, Sharif, who once dominated Pakistani politics, confirmed he planned to run for a third term as prime minister.
The ruling by Pakistan's Supreme Court on Thursday and Sharif's promise to return and run for office further complicate life for Musharraf, who as an army general overthrew Sharif in a bloodless 1999 coup.
Musharraf's recent failed attempt to fire the Supreme Court's chief justice triggered widespread pro-democracy rallies. He also faces U.S. pressure to crack down on Islamic extremists in Pakistan's volatile northwest region near the Afghan border, where attacks on soldiers have increased and the security situation has deteriorated.
Sharif and Benazir Bhutto — another banished former premier with strong popular support planning a comeback — insist Musharraf must let them compete in year-end parliamentary elections if the vote is to be considered democratic.
"If the people of Pakistan elect me to serve the country, I'll be honored to do that," he said.
Washington has made clear that its war on terrorist groups takes priority over the speed of democratic reform in Pakistan. However, it appears to be growing impatient with Musharraf and has been prodding him toward a power-sharing deal with Bhutto and her political party.
On Friday, Sadique al-Farooq, a senior leader of Sharif's party said "there is no chance for any reconciliation" with Musharraf. "It is out of question," he told the AP. "Democracy and dictatorship cannot go together."
Al-Farooq said their party will meet in the capital, Islamabad, on Saturday to consider dates for the return of Sharif.
Sharif told the AP he had a cordial relationship with the United States while he was in office, but said Washington must reconsider its relationship with Pakistan and not give its support just to Musharraf if it wants to quell religious militancy.
"In any democracy you can find such menaces, but if a democracy fights terrorism, ultimately it will win the battle," he said. "But if one individual is fighting the battle (he) cannot win."
Sharif — with a full head of dark hair — appeared more vigorous during his interview than when he was forced from his homeland into exile in Saudi Arabia and London, when he looked frail, gray and nearly bald.
He said he would return to Pakistan soon, but gave no date. A committee from his party, the Pakistan Muslim League, will meet in London in the next few days to decide on plans.
The charismatic 57-year-old conservative secularist served twice as prime minister and is known internationally for authorizing Pakistan's first nuclear bomb test in 1998.
He was arrested when the army seized power a year later and eventually sentenced to life imprisonment on hijacking and terrorism charges. He was released from jail after signing a pledge not to return to Pakistan for at least 10 years.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled Sharif has "an inalienable right to enter and remain in the country," said Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry — the judge Musharraf tried to fire.
At a London news conference broadcast live on Pakistani private television channels, Sharif hailed the court ruling as "a victory for democracy and a defeat for dictatorship."
Sharif said Musharraf had no choice but to uphold the court's ruling allowing him to return home, but he warned that the leader had routinely disregarded the independence of Pakistan's parliament and judiciary.
"Overall, he's reduced the parliament to a rubber stamp," Sharif said. "The sword of the (National) security council is hanging over the head of the parliament."
Musharraf's eight years in office have been "a symbol of tyranny, a symbol of oppression," Sharif said.
"He doesn't show respect for the courts, or for the rule of law. He doesn't respect the parliament, doesn't respect the mandate of the people and doesn't care about the elected assembly," Sharif said.
As Sharif's chanting supporters celebrated outside the court in Islamabad by dancing and slaughtering six goats, government officials said they would respect the ruling.
Government ministers dodged questions Thursday about whether the government would seek to prevent Sharif from competing in the elections.
But the attorney general, Malik Mohammed Qayyum, suggested that the "concessions" granted to Sharif for his release from jail were nullified by the Supreme Court's ruling.
"Let them come and the law will take its own course," Qayyum said.