- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Prosecutors confirmed Tuesday they were pressing ahead with corruption cases against opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a move his supporters said was aimed at further sidelining Mr. Sharif’s party ahead of Pakistan’s presidential elections.

Members of the main governing Pakistan Peoples Party insisted the judicial proceedings had nothing to do with them.

But the news threatened to further sour the main ruling party’s relations with Mr. Sharif, a popular figure whose party holds the second-largest number of seats in parliament and which was just days ago part of the ruling coalition.

Asif Ali Zardari, head of the Pakistan Peoples Party and widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is expected to easily win the presidency in Saturday’s vote by lawmakers. Mr. Sharif’s party is fielding a retired judge as its candidate.

The U.S. is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the election in Pakistan, a country it considers crucial in the fight against Islamic extremism. Pakistan has been battling insurgents in its northwest regions near Afghanistan, and police said Tuesday that eight suspected militants had been killed in the Swat Valley area.

In mid-August, Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari’s parties forced longtime U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf to quit the presidency. Mr. Sharif left the coalition soon after over disputes about who should succeed Mr. Musharraf and how to restore judges the former president removed last year.

Both Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif have been saddled with corruption allegations over the years, but Mr. Zardari has seen cases against him vanish in recent months, in large part because of a deal struck with Mr. Musharraf to pave the way for Mrs. Bhutto’s return to the country.

Zulfiqar Ahmed Bhutta, a top prosecutor with the National Accountability Bureau, confirmed Tuesday that it moved late last month to challenge a court decision to indefinitely adjourn a set of cases against Mr. Sharif, who also is a former prime minister.

The cases stretch back years, and the accusations against Mr. Sharif include money laundering, loan defaults and accumulation of wealth beyond his known sources of income.

Mr. Zardari has garnered the support of several political factions and parties in recent days, making him a virtual lock for the presidency. His party aides are calling him the “consensus candidate,” even though Mr. Sharif’s party and the main pro-Musharraf block oppose him.

Mr. Zardari took over the leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party after his wife’s assassination in December. That party, along with Mr. Sharif’s, soundly defeated Mr. Musharraf’s allies in February’s parliamentary elections, forming a fragile coalition that has come undone.

Mr. Sharif has vowed to play a “constructive” role while in the opposition, and the size of his bloc in parliament could grant him considerable sway.

His party also controls the government of Punjab, Pakistan’s most powerful province.

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