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Musharraf returns to Pakistan intent on comeback

Monday - 3/25/2013, 12:08am  ET

Pakistan's Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin Ebrahim, center, arrives along with other members of election commission to announce the name of caretaker prime minister, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Sunday, March 24, 2013. Pakistan's Election commission has chosen a former high court chief justice Mir Hazar Khan Khoso nominated by the country's outgoing ruling party to serve as caretaker prime minister in the run up to a historic national election this spring. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

REBECCA SANTANA
Associated Press

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) -- Former President Pervez Musharraf returned home Sunday hoping to make a political comeback despite Taliban death threats and looming arrest warrants. But judging by the lackluster crowd at the airport to greet him, his biggest challenge could be his waning popularity.

His return comes as Pakistan is poised to transition from one democratically elected government to another -- a first for a country that has experienced three coups since its 1947 inception. After years on the margins of Pakistani politics, Musharraf is seeking to rebuild his image, hoping to capitalize on an electorate frustrated with five years of rising inflation, rolling blackouts and security problems.

Musharraf, a four-star general who was chief of the army, took power in a 1999 coup and his military-led regime steered the country for nearly a decade until he was forced to step down in 2008 as president. Confronted with mounting criticism and widespread protests after he tried to dismiss a popular chief justice, he left facing impeachment by the newly elected parliament.

He later left the country and has been living between London and Dubai ever since.

The former Pakistani strongman had promised to return to his homeland many times before. He finally followed through, boarding a plane in Dubai with supporters and journalists and flying to the southern port metropolis of Karachi, the largest city in the nation.

Stepping out of the terminal, surrounded by police and supporters, he portrayed himself as a savior seeking to return the country to the prosperity and stability that supporters say marked his presidency.

"I have come back for you. I want you to get back the Pakistan that I had left when we used to feel proud in ourselves," he said.

Musharraf represents a polarizing force that could further complicate Pakistan's attempt to hold parliamentary elections on May 11. The country passed another milestone Sunday when the election commission appointed a caretaker prime minister to run the government ahead of elections, a step that is designed to promote electoral independence.

Musharraf's supporters, including elements of the military and members of Pakistan's influential expatriate communities, consider him a strong leader whose voice could help stabilize the country. Nostalgia for Musharraf's days in power was evident among members of the crowd who turned out to see him at the airport.

"At that time, we had employment. We had jobs. There was peace. It was 100,000 times better than today," said Muhammed Iqbal from Karachi.

Musharraf is fondly remembered by many people in this city of 18 million people where he heavily backed the Muttahida Quami Movement -- the city's dominant political party.

But Musharraf's welcoming party, estimated at between 1,000 and 2,000, was small compared with the hundreds of thousands of people who thronged this same terminal when Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan or the tens of thousands who turned out Saturday night for a rally in Lahore for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

Supporters threw rose petals and enthusiastically waved flags emblazoned with pictures of Musharraf and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, but their energy did not mask their numbers.

"If he claims nationwide support, that would be a joke," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, from the Lahore University of Management Sciences. "I have never seen such a misplaced optimism about oneself."

Musharraf was whisked out of the airport inside an armored vehicle, surrounded by a phalanx of police and paramilitary security forces. It was a reminder of the security threats Musharraf faces.

The former general angered many militants with his decision in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to back the U.S. in its invasion of Afghanistan and cut off ties with the Taliban. Militants as well as many other Pakistanis saw him as carrying out the American agenda in Pakistan.

Militants were further infuriated with Musharraf when he decided in 2007 to raid a mosque in Islamabad that had become a center for militants opposed to the U.S. Pakistani officials said 102 people, mostly supporters of the mosque, died in the week-long operation.

The Pakistan Taliban vowed to kill him in a video released on Saturday. One of the featured speakers in the video -- former Pakistan Air Force officer Adnan Rashid -- was convicted of helping plot an assassination attempt against Musharraf back in 2003 when a suicide bomber tried to ram his vehicle. Rashid was imprisoned, but he escaped during a jail break orchestrated by the Taliban. In the video, he said Musharraf should surrender himself to the Taliban or prepare to be hit again.

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