Islamabad, Pakistan Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif will make another attempt to return from exile, his party said Thursday, setting up a new confrontation with President Gen. Pervez Musharraf before Pakistan's critical parliamentary elections.
With Saudi leaders appearing to back Sharif's desire to leave Saudi Arabia, Musharraf appeared to have few options for fending off the return of a former prime minister who would also challenge pro-Western Benazir Bhutto in her bid to return to power as premier.
Sharif's plan was announced hours after Pakistan's new Supreme Court, with judges appointed by Musharraf, swept away the last legal obstacles to his new five-year term as president. The Election Commission was freed to certify Musharraf's re-election by legislators last month.
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 the constitution and assumption of emergency powers three weeks ago.
But discontent has intensified this year over Musharraf's rule, which began with a coup that ousted Sharif as prime minister in 1999. A return by Sharif, a vehement critic of the general and leader of one of the two main opposition parties, would be sure to bolster the anti-government campaign.
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 parliamentary elections set for Jan. 9, Hussain said on Dawn News television.
Musharraf has insisted that Sharif stay out of Pakistan until after the elections, which the West hopes will produce a moderate government able to turn the tide against Islamic militants who have shown increased strength in the tribal region along the border with Afghanistan.
Speculation that Saudi Arabia was willing to let Sharif go home had been rife since Musharraf made a surprise trip to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for talks with King Abdullah on Tuesday.
Sharif's party said he was coming to Pakistan to lead the party in the elections. He had been calling for parties to boycott the vote, but apparently changed his mind after Bhutto's bloc and other rival opposition groups didn't take up the idea.
Bhutto said Thursday that it could take weeks for the fractious opposition to work any agreement on a boycott and that her party would file nomination papers for its candidates in the meantime.
Elsewhere on Thursday, The 53-nation Commonwealth, largely made up of Britain and its former colonies, suspended Pakistan from the organization Thursday for failing to end emergency rule.
Pakistan was last kicked out of the organization in 1999 after Musharraf seized power in a coup. It took the country five years to be reinstated.