Musharraf Faces Double Trouble With Commonwealth Suspension, Exiled PM Sharif Return

Pakistan on Friday denounced an international organization's suspension of its membership, while an opposition party said its exiled leader was taking key steps to return to the emergency-ruled country.

The government condemned the banishment from the Commonwealth as "unreasonable and unjustified" and said the 53-nation body, comprising Britain and its former colonies, had failed to appreciate Pakistan's "serious internal crisis" in demanding that it immediately restore democracy.

Meanwhile, the return of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from Saudi Arabia could bolster opponents of President Gen. Pervez Musharraf ahead of Jan. 8 parliamentary elections.

Sharif's plan was announced Thursday hours after the Supreme Court, packed with pliant judges, swept away the last legal obstacles to Musharraf's new five-year term as president.

On Friday, the court also declared that Musharraf's seizure of emergency powers was legal. "All acts and actions taken are also validated," Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar said.

The U.S.-allied leader was expected to give up his dual, and powerful, post as army chief within days in hopes of cooling domestic and foreign criticism over his suspension of three-week-old emergency.

But discontent has intensified this year over Musharraf's rule, which began with a coup that ousted Sharif as prime minister in 1999. Sharif is now a vehement critic of the general and leader of one of the two main opposition parties.

Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi declined to say what Musharraf would do if Sharif tried to enter Pakistan. Sharif was swiftly deported to Saudi Arabia when he tried to return in September.

That expulsion was supported by Saudi Arabia's government, but Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, president of Musharraf's ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, said Sharif now had "some deal" with Saudi authorities.

"We are ready to face him and he has to face the people" in the elections, Hussain said on Dawn News television.

Musharraf has insisted that Sharif stay out of Pakistan until after the vote , which the West hopes will produce a moderate government able to turn the tide against Islamic militants who have gained ground along the border with Afghanistan.

Speculation that Saudi Arabia wanted Sharif to go home had been rife since Musharraf made a surprise trip to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for talks with King Abdullah on Tuesday.

Sharif was to meet the king on Friday and hopes to return to Pakistan before the end of the month, his party said.

An official in Musharraf's office told The Associated Press that the general had "softened" his approach toward Sharif.

"The hope is that he (Sharif) will not act like Benazir Bhutto who is following the politics of confrontation," said the official. "If he agrees to do it, he will be allowed to return home even before the elections."

The official, who sought anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue, said associates of Sharif and Musharraf were in touch to explore how they could end their feud.

The re-emergence of a heavyweight rival is a headache for Musharraf as he tries to defend the emergency against stiff criticism, including from the United States.

It could also complicate the hopes of Bhutto, who returned in October and has been favored by the West, regaining power.

Musharraf imposed the emergency just before the previous Supreme Court was to rule on complaints that the constitution bars the army chief from running for elected office.

Authorities blocked independent TV news and arrested thousands of lawyers, opposition party supporters and human rights activists.

All but one news channel is back on air and the Foreign Ministry said Thursday that all but "a few" had been freed. And Thursday's court ruling meant Musharraf could meet another key demand by resigning his military post and governing as a civilian. Attorney General Malik Mohammed Qayyum said that could happen this weekend.

The Commonwealth voted at a meeting in Uganda to suspend Pakistan's membership because Musharraf failed to meet its Thursday deadline to end the crackdown and quit the military.

The Foreign Ministry said Pakistan was reviewing its ties with the group.

"The pace of progress towards normalcy will be determined by ground realities and legal requirements in Pakistan rather than unrealistic demands from outside," a ministry statement said.

Qayyum said Thursday the emergency would be lifted "very soon" but no date has been set.

Pakistan was last kicked out of the Commonwealth in 1999 after Musharraf seized power in a coup. It took the country five years to be reinstated.

State-run Pakistan Television on Friday read out a message of support for Musharraf from another key ally, his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, who said he "completely" understood Musharraf's efforts to stabilize Pakistan.

"I firmly believe that, under the leadership of your excellency, Pakistan is able to properly handle the internal and external challenges, realize smooth transition and continue to maintain stability and development," Hu was quoted as saying.