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Pakistan politics testy ahead of presidential vote
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    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — 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 Sharif’s party ahead of presidential elections.
    Members of the main governing Pakistan People’s 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 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 People’s Party and widower of slain ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is expected to easily win the presidency in Saturday’s vote by lawmakers. Sharif’s party is fielding a retired judge as its candidate.
    The U.S. is keenly 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, Sharif and Zardari’s parties forced longtime U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf to quit the presidency. Sharif left the coalition soon after over disputes about who should succeed Musharraf and how to restore judges the former president sacked last year.
    Both Zardari and Sharif have been saddled with corruption allegations over the years, but Zardari has seen cases against him vanish in recent months, thanks in large part to a deal struck with Musharraf to pave the way for 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 Sharif, also a former prime minister.
    The cases stretch back years, and their accusations against Sharif include money laundering, loan defaults and accumulation of wealth beyond his known sources of income.
    ‘‘It appears to be aimed at using the accountability courts against Nawaz Sharif,’’ said the opposition leader’s lawyer, Khwaja Haris. ‘‘It appears to be used for political ends.’’
    Sharif aide Ahsan Iqbal said pursuing the cases smacked of ‘‘political bankruptcy.’’
    ‘‘Sometimes, if you cannot get things done politically, then you try to blackmail the opposition,’’ he told Dawn News TV. ‘‘I would still hope that the ruling party would refrain from such tactics.’’
    Information Minister Sherry Rehman said Zardari’s party ‘‘will not pursue the politics of revenge.’’ Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, meanwhile, said the accountability bureau, which the new government has vowed to reform, ‘‘has no value.’’
    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 Sharif’s party and the main pro-Musharraf block oppose him.
    Zardari has stunned many by becoming the country’s most powerful politician, despite holding no elected position. For years, Zardari has been best known as Bhutto’s husband and derisively called ‘‘Mr. 10 Percent’’ for allegedly receiving kickbacks on government contracts during his wife’s terms as prime minister.
    Zardari took over the leadership of the Pakistan People’s Party after his wife’s assassination in December. That party, along with Sharif’s, soundly defeated Musharraf’s allies in February parliamentary elections, forming a fragile coalition that has come undone.
    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.
    The tone of discourse between the parties has grown increasingly testy since the coalition collapsed. Zardari on Monday — without naming Sharif — said the former two-time premier was ‘‘still immature in politics.’’
    ‘‘You need a bit more experience,’’ Zardari said. ‘‘So, we are thinking and we are trying and we will wait so that he can enhance his political understanding.’’
    Zardari’s party is generally considered more in line with American policies on fighting Islamist extremism than Sharif’s, which has a more conservative base.
    But many Pakistanis consider Musharraf’s support for America’s foray into Afghanistan as the reason for rising violence in their country. Such sentiments have led Zardari’s party to tread carefully in fighting insurgents.
    The government at first tried peace deals with militants, but more recently resorted to force, staging an offensive in the Bajur tribal region that killed hundreds and displaced hundreds of thousands. That military campaign has halted for the Muslim holy month, Ramadan.
    Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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