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Pakistan election campaign intensifies as opposition leaders criticize Musharraf

SUKKUR, Pakistan - Pakistan's opposition leaders fanned out across the country Monday, lashing out at President Pervez Musharraf and telling thousands of people at raucous political rallies to vote for change.

The Jan. 8 parliamentary election could be a crucial step in restoring democracy here after a six-week state of emergency ended on Dec. 15. It will also have deep implications for the future of Musharraf's administration, seen as a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism.

Former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, who both returned from exile to lead their opposition parties' campaigns, have pledged to work together in hopes of loosening the former army chief's grip on power.

Speaking to 3,000 people in the town of Sukkur, in Bhutto's home province of Sindh, Sharif accused Musharraf of presiding over a worsening economy and sparking violent confrontations across the Islamic country.

"The country is soaked in blood and fire from Khyber to Karachi," said Sharif, who has been banned from running for office himself, but was addressing voters on behalf of his party's candidates.

Sharif spoke a day after a suicide bomber attacked a military convoy in Pakistan's troubled northwestern Swat region, killing five civilians and four soldiers.

The newly formed Tehrik-i-Taliban, a coalition of Islamic militants committed to waging holy war against the government, said Monday that it was behind the bombing. It demanded the military end its operations against militants in Swat and withdraw its forces from the volatile northwest. The army claims to have killed about 300 militants in Swat since last month.

"That was just a warning shot. ... The government should expect more if our demands are not met," Maulana Mohammed Umer, a spokesman for the militant group, said in a telephone interview from an unknown location.

Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have extended their influence over parts of the northwest in the past two years and have launched numerous suicide attacks in recent months.

Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz told reporters in the capital, Islamabad, that Musharraf still faced death threats from al-Qaida, though he did not elaborate. Musharraf has survived at least three attacks in recent years.

The government also was providing security during the campaign to top opposition leaders, Nawaz said.

At his campaign rally, Sharif accused Musharraf of fealty to the United States, and said the president's dismissal of top judges as part of a crackdown on the independent judiciary turned the country into an international laughingstock.

The choice before voters was "whether Pakistan will be ruled by a few generals or 160 million people," said Sharif, who was ousted from power by Musharraf in a 1999 coup.

Bhutto told a rally in the southern city of Rahim Yar Khan in Sharif's eastern Punjab province that she would create more jobs, provide loans, alleviate poverty and allot land to the homeless.

"I am fighting this war for the rights of the masses," she said.

Speaking to AP Television News, Bhutto said her agenda was "to empower the people, to educate the people, to provide employment opportunity to the people, to end the energy shortage that we have in the country."

Pervez Elahi, the likely candidate of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q party, told a rally of about 3,000 people in the city of Jhelum in Punjab that Musharraf's 1999 coup saved Pakistan when it was about to become a failed state.

Meanwhile, a coalition of opposition parties boycotting the election to protest Musharraf's crackdown on dissent called for its supporters to block off the nation's roads on election day to sabotage the vote.

"We don't believe there can be any fair and free polls under Pervez Musharraf," Mahmood Khan Achakzai, a leader of the All Parties Democratic Movement, told more than 10,000 supporters in the southwestern city of Pishin.

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Associated Press reporter Ishtiaq Mehsud contributed to this report from Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, and AP reporter Khalid Tanveer contributed to this report from Rahim Yar Khan, Pakistan.

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