Nawaz’s Return Generates
Heated Debate in US Media
By Anwar Iqbal
Washington, DC: As former
prime minister Nawaz Sharif performed his last Umrah on Saturday
before heading home, diplomatic sources in Washington say
that the initiative for his return came from the Saudis.
Former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif endorsed such
speculations in an interview he gave to VOA radio, saying
that “the Saudis did not want to get further involved
in Pakistan’s domestic politics” and that’s
why they are allowing his brother to return.
Another PML (N) leader, Javed Hashmi, told the American radio
that President Pervez Musharraf tried to convince the Saudi
government to prevent Mr. Sharif from returning home, but
the Saudis refused to do so. He said that since the Saudis
were no more willing to keep Mr. Sharif, the government did
not have the option of sending him back to the kingdom as
it did on September 10.
“They can arrest him but that too will not be easy,”
Mr. Hashmi said. “Gen Musharraf has weakened considerably
since September 10. Arresting Mr. Sharif will create new problems
What role did the Americans play in arranging Mr. Sharif’s
return? A State Department official, when asked for comments,
said: “We do not back candidates or parties, but we
do encourage moderate political elements in Pakistan to get
together to fight terrorism.”
But diplomatic sources say that while the US administration
made no direct contact with Mr. Sharif, it did negotiate with
them indirectly, using Saudi officials as intermediaries.
A Washington-based South Asian website called Wichar, which
is run by prominent Indian and Pakistani journalists, thinks
otherwise. Quoting diplomatic sources, the site claimed that
while in Saudi Arabia earlier this week, President Musharraf
held a secret meeting with Mr. Sharif and the US ambassador
in the kingdom also participated in the meeting.
All three parties — the Pakistani and US governments
and Mr. Sharif — however, insist that there has been
no such meeting.
The New York Times welcomes Mr. Sharif’s expected return
as a positive development and urges the Bush administration
to encourage Benazir Bhutto to work with Mr. Sharif to build
a broad “civilian democratic front” in Pakistan.
“Instead of urging Benazir Bhutto to expand her credibility
on implausible power-sharing deals, Washington should be encouraging
her to work with her long-time political rival, Nawaz Sharif,
and build a broad civilian democratic front,” the newspaper
Some media reports also speculated that the possibility that
PPP may emerge as a strong political force in the forthcoming
elections, if not challenged, persuaded the government to
allow Mr. Sharif to return home.
They claimed that the reception Ms Bhutto received when she
returned home surprised the government. Pakistan’s intelligence
agencies, they said, had calculated that during nine years
of absence Ms Bhutto’s political base had shriveled,
but they were proven wrong.
This, according to these reports, persuaded the government
to review its policies and allow Mr. Sharif to return because
they did not want to give the PPP a free hand.
PML (N)’s participation in the forthcoming elections,
the reports said, would ensure that no party got an overwhelming
majority in the next parliament. A hung parliament, they argued,
would give the government more room to maneuver and the government
needed this space because it would want the new parliament
to give indemnity to Gen Musharraf’s Nov 3 PCO. Without
indemnity the PCO would be seen as an act of treason, the
The media argued that while Mr. Sharif might deny making any
deal with the government, he could not return without making
some prior ‘arrangement’ with Islamabad.
They noted that since her return, Ms Bhutto had dropped all
but one of her demands: “Gen Musharraf must take off
his uniform,” a demand the general has already promised
Mr. Sharif, they said, might also drop most of his demands
and accept a working arrangement with the government, if they
have already not done so.
Some reports suggested that Gen Musharraf might not want to
retire from the army before the elections and would wait for
a parliamentary indemnity before quitting his power base.