August 17, 2007 - 8:44 AM
By Zeeshan Haider
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's exiled former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has warned another former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, against cutting a deal with embattled President Pervez Musharraf, saying it would dent her credibility.
Musharraf, who is facing a deepening political crisis as he prepares to seek a second term in office, met Bhutto in Abu Dhabi last month in an effort to forge a power-sharing deal.
But Sharif, ousted by Musharraf in a military coup in 1999, described the meeting as a setback and urged Bhutto to break off contacts with Musharraf.
"Musharraf is a drowning man at this stage, he has no options left. I hate to say this but I think he is like a sinking ship," Sharif said in an interview with India's NDTV news channel aired on Thursday.
"Anybody who cuts a deal with Musharraf at this stage would damage his own credibility and I don't want to damage my credibility," he said in the interview conducted in Dubai.
Analysts say U.S. ally Musharraf, who is also army chief, is at his weakest since he seized power.
He has seen his popularity plummet since he tried to fire the country's chief justice in March and suffered a major blow to his authority when the Supreme Court reinstated the judge last month.
He is also facing a wave of Islamist militant attacks.
A deal with Bhutto, whose Pakistan People's Party is generally seen as the country's most popular party, would broaden Musharraf's base of support, analysts say.
Bhutto and Sharif were both elected twice and dismissed twice during the 1980s and 1990s.
Once bitter rivals, they joined forces in a multi-party opposition coalition -- the Alliance for the Restoration of Democracy -- to press for the end of military rule.
But the alliance has appeared to wither since Bhutto established contacts with the government. Sharif has joined another opposition alliance, the recently formed All Parties Democratic Movement, which does not include Bhutto's party.
"JOIN THE STRUGGLE"
Sharif said Bhutto should give up contacts with the government and return to the ranks of the opposition.
"She must come back and join the struggle for restoration of democracy, join the struggle for pushing the army back into the barracks and join the struggle for banning the entry of generals into politics because this has done great harm."
Musharraf sent Sharif and his family to Saudi Arabia in 2000 under, what the government says, was an agreement that they would stay in exile for 10 years.
Sharif denies any deal with Musharraf and has vowed to return to take part in the elections. He has also petitioned the Supreme Court seeking instructions for the government to lift restrictions on his return.
He faces several corruption cases although prosecutors have not been pursuing them since he left the country.
But in a move apparently aimed at making him think twice before returning, the government has called on an anti-graft court to take up the cases. The court had allowed the reopening of at least three of them, said a government prosecutor.
Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is also a politician, tried to return home after a Supreme Court ruling that he could in 2004 but the government deported him to Saudi Arabia hours after he landed.
The recently reinstated Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is heading a panel hearing Sharif's petition, on Thursday said the court ruling on Shahbaz was still valid and he could not be legally kept out of the country.
Government lawyers say they plan to produce the exile deal signed by the Sharif brothers at the next hearing on August 23.Reuters (IDS)