Pakistan's top court on Tuesday lifted a ban on popular opposition leader Nawaz Sharif contesting elections, paving the way for his return to parliament and removing the first major barrier to him becoming prime minister for a third time.
Sharif is key to the hopes of Pakistan's Western allies that its moderate political parties will unite to fight the Islamic extremists who are destabilizing the nuclear-armed country as well as threatening the success of the U.S.-led mission in neighboring Afghanistan.
The ruling came as Pakistan's army claimed more gains in a month-long offensive in the northwestern Swat Valley and surrounding districts that has been welcomed by foreign governments but has displaced more than 2 million people from their homes.
Judges at the Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling banning Sharif from elected office because of a criminal conviction dating to 2000 that he and most analysts say was politically motivated. They said it was a "miscarriage of justice," but gave no reason.
Sharif gave no hint of his political plans in a news conference minutes after the verdict, but he is now free to return to parliament by contesting a by-election when a seat becomes available. To become prime minister in polls in 2013, he would have to lobby lawmakers to overturn a constitutional bar on holding the position three times — something his party has long demanded.
Most popular politician
"I would like to salute the people of Pakistan again because they, with great effort and struggle, fought for the independence of the judiciary," said Sharif, whom opinion polls easily show as the country's most popular politician. "I would like to thank God almighty."
Sharif's party came second in parliamentary elections last year, behind the party of President Asif Ali Zardari. The two parties originally formed a government together, but after two months Sharif's grouping became the opposition, accusing Zardari of reneging on a vow to restore judges fired by former President Pervez Musharraf.
Media reports quoting unnamed U.S. officials early this year suggested the United States was trying to encourage the increasingly unpopular Zardari to give more power to Sharif as a way of shoring up the country's moderate center.
Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the head of Pakistan's largest party, has cultivated ties with the U.S. and sought to rally Pakistanis behind the fight against Islamic extremists. But his popularity began withering soon after he assumed office a year ago amid a punishing economic crisis and persistent terror attacks.
Critics say Sharif remains close to conservative Muslim factions that are not so vocal in their opposition to the Taliban and see the conflict as "America's War," but his party is secular and supports the government's offensive against the militants in the Swat Valley.
"America's interest is in keeping these two major political parties on the same page in the war on terror," said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Pledge not to destabilize government
Sharif has said he will not destabilize Zardari's government or campaign for early elections, but given the turbulent nature of Pakistani politics, that could change. Since its creation in 1947, only one government in Pakistan has seen through its five-year term.
Rais said he thought Sharif would wait until to 2013 — assuming he won the right — to run for prime minister. He noted that current Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was popular among most parties. Instead, he predicted that Sharif would make a renewed push to roll back some of the powers that Zardari inherited from Musharraf.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled Sharif was not eligible for office, a decision it said was final.
But in response Sharif led nationwide protests against the government, which backed down and allowed him to appeal the decision — a move praised by the United States and Britain.
It also agreed to reinstate the chief justice, another key demand of Sharif.
Sharif returned from exile in 2007 seeking to contest elections, but was disqualified by a court because of a prior criminal conviction on terrorism and hijacking charges stemming from the 1999 coup against Sharif's government by then-Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The army meanwhile said government troops had reclaimed control of more than half of the biggest town in the Swat Valley, Mingora, and had scared off local recruits who had initially joined with the Taliban.
"The information we have so far from intelligence and other sources is that militants' morale is down, they are panicked and they are trying to flee from different parts" of the valley, said Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas.
Battle zone sealed
The military account of the campaign is impossible to verify because the battle zone is largely sealed off to reporters. The military says it has killed about 1,100 suspected insurgents and kept civilian casualties to a minimum. Witnesses have described widespread civilian casualties.
Elsewhere in the northwest, intelligence officials said Pakistani troops backed by helicopter gunships attacked suspected militant hide-outs in two villages in South Waziristan, killing at least six insurgents and wounding 12 others. The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Syed Mohsin Shah, the top government official in nearby Dera Ismail Khan district, said some 1,500 families have fled from South Waziristan in the past few weeks because of fighting between the two sides.
Aid officials fear a second refugee crisis could emerge in the fighting worsens in Waziristan.