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Sharif confronts old enemy Musharraf

The former Pakistan prime minister launches another phase of his roller-coaster political career, returning home to challenge the army chief.

world Updated: Sep 10, 2007 12:33 IST

Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif launched another phase of his roller-coaster political career on Monday, returning home to challenge the army chief who ousted him eight years ago.

Despite the possibility of arrest on graft charges as he steps off his aircraft in Islamabad, or even deportation, Sharif says he is determined to end his exile, go home and halt the rule of army chief and president Pervez Musharraf.

"It's a great feeling going home but of course the responsibilities are enormous," Sharif, 57, told Reuters in an interview in London this month.

His two terms as prime minister in the 1990s were dogged by accusations of graft but his defiance of the unpopular Musharraf has won him fresh support that could carry him back to power.

The timing of a return by Sharif and his politician brother Shahbaz could not be worse for Musharraf.

His popularity sliding since he tried to fire the Supreme Court chief in March, Musharraf is preparing to seek re-election by the national and provincial assemblies in coming days and hold parliamentary elections around the end of the year.

His ruling party was cobbled together from the remnants of Sharif's party, whose reappearance could trigger more defections from Musharraf's political base.

Musharraf is also negotiating a power-sharing deal with another former prime minister in exile, Benazir Bhutto, who has come in for criticism from some in her party, Sharif and the public for negotiating with the unloved general.

Right to return

Just weeks ago, Sharif was stuck in exile on the sidelines of Pakistani politics, but then on Aug. 23 the Supreme Court -- fresh from a bruising tussle with Musharraf over his bid to dismiss its top judge -- ruled he had the right to come back.

After the 1999 coup, Sharif was convicted of corruption and given a life sentence for hijacking, relating to his refusal to allow landing rights to an airliner carrying Musharraf.

The government has tried to press Sharif to stick to an agreement the government says he struck in 2000 to go into exile in Saudi Arabia for 10 years. Sharif denied any agreement but said on Saturday he had believed his exile would be five years.

Born into a Kashmiri family of industrialists on December 15, 1949, in Lahore, Sharif took a law degree and worked in the family business before turning to politics.

Groomed by a military dictator, Sharif was picked as finance minister of Punjab in 1981, and became its chief minister in 1985. In 1990, the portly, balding Sharif became prime minister for the first time, after Bhutto was sacked.

As the first industrialist to rule Pakistan, Sharif tried to reverse socialist policies and open up the economy. Opposition parties accused him of selling state firms cheaply to friends.

His liberal economics did not extend to social policies. In 1991, he was embroiled in controversy after trying to make Islamic sharia law the supreme law of Pakistan.

In 1993, he ran afoul of the then-president who dismissed his government on charges of nepotism and corruption. The Supreme Court later restored his government but Sharif and the president failed to reconcile and both resigned.

But Bhutto was no more successful on her second try as prime minister, and Sharif was back in power by 1996.

This time, strengthened by a big election win in 1997, he tightened his grip. He cracked down on the media and amended the constitution to strip the president of power to dissolve the National Assembly. A row with the judiciary led to the removal of the Supreme Court chief.

But political and economic problems mounted.

Nuclear tests in 1998 established Pakistan as a nuclear power, but resulted in international isolation.

A deteriorating relationship with Musharraf, who Sharif had appointed army chief, became unsalvageable after a border conflict with India in 1999, months before the October 12 coup.