Former President Returns to Pakistan

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistan's onetime military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, ended four years of self-imposed exile on Sunday in hopes of carving out a political future, but he received an unremarkable welcome as he landed at the airport in Karachi.

General Musharraf, who resigned as president in August 2008 under threat of impeachment and left the country the following April, arrived early Sunday afternoon on a flight from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. A small crowd gathered at the airport and shouted slogans in his support.

Mr. Musharraf appeared upbeat as he arrived. "I respect your emotions," he said, waving to the crowd. "Thank you, thank you," he said as his supporters shouted, "Long live Musharraf!"

"I have returned. People used to think that I would not return, but I have come back," Mr. Musharraf said. "I am not scared of anyone but God."

"I have put my life in danger, but I want to save Pakistan," he added.

While the former president has survived multiple threats against him by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, his planned political rally on Sunday did not.

Rashid Qureshi, a retired general and a leader of Mr. Musharraf's political party, the All Pakistan Muslim League, said a large welcome rally planned in Karachi had been derailed because of security concerns.

"The government informed us that there was a serious threat to General Musharraf's life, and the Taliban were going to try to kill him by a multipronged attack, including snipers and suicide bombers," Mr. Qureshi said Sunday night. He said the government gave its permission for the rally too late to inform everyone.

Still, Mr. Qureshi said many supporters went to the site of the rally, Jinnah's Mausoleum, the tomb of Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But "efforts to bring everyone to the airport did not succeed," Mr. Qureshi said.

He said that the authorities did not allow Mr. Musharraf to speak outside the airport, but that he made brief remarks to the crowd inside. Mr. Musharraf plans to meet with party officials on Monday, Mr. Qureshi said.

The anticlimactic homecoming pointed out at least in part the many questions hanging over what role, if any, Mr. Musharraf could play in Pakistan's changing political environment given the security and legal hurdles in front of him.

During his tenure as president, Mr. Musharraf battled with Islamist extremists who have continued to gain strength and challenge the state, especially in the country's restive northwestern regions. Numerous court cases await Mr. Musharraf, and before returning he managed to arrange pre-arrest bail in three of them in which he faces criminal charges -- in the deaths of the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and a Baluch leader, Nawab Akbar Bugti. He has denied the charges.

Not least of the questions for Mr. Musharraf is how much political support he can expect in a country that has largely moved on since his departure. Indeed, news of Mr. Musharraf's return was nearly overshadowed by the announcement on Sunday that a caretaker prime minister had been appointed -- a decision keenly awaited by political analysts. Pakistan's chief election commissioner announced that Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, a retired justice, would serve as prime minister and lead the government until May 11, when general elections are scheduled.

Mr. Khoso, 84, has served as a chief justice of Baluchistan Province, and his appointment was widely welcomed in political circles. "My first priority is to hold fair, free and transparent elections," Mr. Khoso said, speaking with reporters in Islamabad.

Mr. Musharraf hopes that his political party will be able to offer a third choice to voters, many of whom are disillusioned by the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which is led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

In addition, Imran Khan, a cricket star turned politician, is gaining traction as an alternative to the main parties, analysts say.

Mr. Khan held a rally in the eastern city of Lahore on Saturday night, cheered by a boisterous crowd of hundreds of thousands of young men and women who form his support base.

Political analysts dismissed any chance that Mr. Musharraf could succeed in reviving his political fortunes.

"Musharraf will not be able to make any significant political impact," said Farooq Hameed Khan, a retired brigadier and columnist for The News, an English daily.

Several of Mr. Musharraf's allies and colleagues have distanced themselves from him and offered little or no support. "I don't think he can make a political difference," said Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, who served as minister for information and railways under Mr. Musharraf.

Mr. Musharraf took power after a bloodless coup in 1999, but his rule began to unravel in 2007, when he tried to dismiss Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the country's crusading chief justice. A subsequent opposition movement led by the country's lawyers, and supported by opposition politicians, weakened Mr. Musharraf's grip on power, and a political party, Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which was his political support, lost badly in 2008 elections.

Mr. Musharraf hopes to move beyond his past.

"Where is the Pakistan that I had left years ago?" he said in his brief address to supporters at the Karachi airport. "My heart cries when I see the state of the country."

Mr. Musharraf's aides said he intended to move next week to Islamabad, the capital, where he maintains a lavish farmhouse, and he was later to take up a nationwide tour to meet supporters.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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