ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Supreme Court judges hand-picked by Gen. Pervez Musharraf took only two hours Monday to quash legal challenges to his disputed re-election as Pakistani president.
The ruling paves the way for Musharraf to quit as army chief soon and perhaps ease a state of emergency that has seriously strained his ties with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the United States.
However, it also enraged his most embittered opponents, who denounced the purged court's decision as illegitimate and insisted that he would have to step down to end a political crisis bedeviling a country facing an onslaught by Islamic militants.
Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, a Cabinet minister close to Musharraf, said he doubted the general would lift the emergency soon.
But both opposition parties and analysts said the ruling opened a window for the general to yield to mounting international and domestic pressure to get critical Jan. 8 parliamentary elections back on track.
"The whole country was subject to martial law only to get this decision," said Ahsan Iqbal, a leader of the party of exiled former premier Nawaz Sharif. "Now he has got his decision at gunpoint" and may soon make concessions, Iqbal said.
The general told The Associated Press last week that he would quit as army chief by the end of the month, assuming he was given the legal go-ahead to remain as president.
The court said it would rule Thursday on another petition from a man whose candidacy for the disputed Oct. 6 presidential election was rejected. Only then can it authorize the election commission to announce Musharraf the winner of the vote.
Newly promoted Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar dismissed three opposition petitions challenging Musharraf's victory in the ballot by lawmakers.
He said two had been "withdrawn" because opposition lawyers -- several of whom have been in jail since the emergency was declared -- were not present in court. The third was pulled by a lawyer for the party of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.
"We asked for (the case) to be postponed because we said there is no constitution," Bhutto told reporters in Karachi after meeting the U.S. ambassador. She said she had no plans to revive power-sharing negotiations with Musharraf. The talks broke down after authorities put her under house arrest to stop her from leading rallies against the emergency.
"We are not going back to the former track," Bhutto said. "We are interested in a road map for democracy, but we do not have the confidence that Gen. Musharraf's regime could give us that road map."
However, she said her party had not yet decided whether to boycott the election and didn't repeat a vow made last week not to work with Musharraf after the vote.
Musharraf seized emergency powers on Nov. 3, suspending the constitution, rounding up thousands of opponents and shutting down independent TV channels.
Supreme Court judges unwilling to support the new order were purged and detained, days before they was expected to rule on his eligibility for a new presidential term.
Imran Khan, an opposition leader best known for his career as a Pakistani cricket star, began a hunger strike at a jail in Lahore on Monday.
"He plans to keep it up until the judiciary is restored. He could get very thin," his ex-wife, Jemima Khan, told The Associated Press in an e-mail from London, where she lives with the couple's two young sons.
An official in Musharraf's office welcomed Monday's ruling and said it kept the general on track to quit the army by the end of November.
"The president will not waste time in ... removing his uniform after a final court ruling," the official said. He asked for anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
The United States has put immense pressure on Musharraf to go further than that and lift the emergency as swiftly as possible.
After talks with Musharraf and Bhutto, visiting U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on Sunday reiterated Washington's blunt view that the elections cannot be free and fair unless Musharraf frees opponents, lifts curbs on the media and lets political parties campaign freely.
But he also urged the opposition to cool an "atmosphere of brinkmanship and political confrontation" and restart a reconciliation process that last month yielded a corruption amnesty that allowed Bhutto to return from exile.
Despite deep personal mistrust, Musharraf and Bhutto continue to call for moderates to join forces against rising Islamic extremism -- a prospect that enthuses Western countries with troops in neighboring Afghanistan and worried about al-Qaida attacks emanating from Pakistan.
In his first public comments since Negroponte's visit, Musharraf urged the opposition not to shun the polls, which he said would be fair, but also defended the emergency.
"I took this decision in the best interest of Pakistan," Musharraf said late Sunday after inaugurating a bridge in the southern city of Karachi, state media reported. "I cannot watch this country go down in front of me after so many achievements."
Rasul Baksh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences, said that with the court ruling, Musharraf had achieved his main objective and could lift the emergency "very quickly" after being sworn in for a new presidential term.
While opponents such as Sharif, the prime minister ousted when Musharraf staged a coup in 1999, Pakistan's militant lawyers and sections of the media would remain deeply hostile, Musharraf had now added the courts to his allies in the bureaucracy and military, Rais said.
Relaxing the repression will also give Bhutto "some space to re-enter the negotiations which the United States, and Benazir and Musharraf want to get back to," he said.
Musharraf has survived previous challenges to his power thanks to the ability of Pakistan's military-led establishment to keep its weak opposition parties divided, in part by exiling its leaders.
Iqbal forecast that Musharraf will ease only some of the emergency restrictions, keeping others on the pretext of fighting terrorism. Army helicopters and artillery have been pounding militants in a valley 160 kilometers (100) miles north of the capital for days.
Iqbal also said that Bhutto had yet to respond to Sharif's proposals for a united front to unseat Musharraf and complained that Washington was not calling for the restoration of the ousted judges.
Accepting their removal "means that no court can ever rule against the government" without fearing dismissal. "The fundamental crisis is not just fair and free elections, it is rule of law."