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By Akhtar Soomro
KARACHI (Reuters) - Pakistan's former President, Pervez Musharraf, returned home on Sunday after nearly four years of self-imposed exile to contest elections despite the possibility of arrest and death threats from the Taliban.
Musharraf hopes to regain influence so that his party can win seats in the general election scheduled for May 11, when he will face fierce competition, including from the man he ousted in a military takeover.
"People said I would not come. Where are those people now? People were trying to scare me. I only fear Allah, no one else," Musharraf said at Karachi's airport, as more than 1,000 supporters cheered.
The former army general, who seized power in a 1999 coup, resigned in 2008 when his allies lost a vote and a new government threatened him with impeachment. He left the South Asian nation a year later.
Musharraf has been far removed from Pakistan's numerous troubles during his exile in London and Dubai, where he lived in a posh part of the Gulf Arab emirate.
"Where has the Pakistan I left five years ago gone? My heart cries tears of blood when I see the state of the country today," Musharraf said. "I have come back for you. I want to restore the Pakistan I left."
Musharraf has not spelled out how he would do that as the election race heats up.
Pakistan's military has ruled the nation for more than half of its 66-year history, through coups and from behind the scenes. It sets foreign and security policy, even when civilian administrations are in power.
But the powerful generals have meddled far less in politics than in Musharraf's era, preferring instead to let civilian governments take the heat for the country's failures.
The ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has had little success in tackling corruption, chronic power cuts and rebuilding the dilapidated infrastructure.
Pakistan may soon have to turn to the International Monetary Fund again to keep the economy afloat and avoid a balance of payments crisis.
A caretaker government, headed by newly-appointed Hazar Khan Khoso, a former judge, will make preparations for elections.
Musharraf may soon run into legal problems. He faces charges of failing to provide adequate security to former prime minister Benazir Bhutto before her assassination in 2007.
He also faces charges in connection with the death of a separatist leader in southwestern Baluchistan province. He denies any wrongdoing.
Musharraf had been granted bail in advance to avoid being arrested upon his return, but could be detained at a later date.
It remains unclear whether Musharraf will regain influence in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed U.S. ally.
He is unlikely to beat former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom he removed in a military coup. He is believed to be the frontrunner in the election race.
Other contenders include cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who has been delivering speeches for months, hoping to tap into deep public discontent.
Musharraf's most immediate concern may be Pakistan's Taliban, who threatened in a video on Saturday to despatch suicide bombers and snipers to kill him and send him to "hell".
Musharraf dismissed the threats, but a rally he was supposed to hold on Sunday afternoon was cancelled. Al Qaeda assassins tried to kill Musharraf at least three times in the past.
He angered the Taliban and other groups by joining the American war on terror following the September 11, 2001 attacks and by later launching a major crackdown on militants.
Militants were especially enraged when Musharraf's security forces launched a full-scale attack on Islamabad's sprawling Red Mosque in 2007 after followers of radical clerics running a Taliban-style movement from there refused to surrender.
The government said 102 people were killed in fighting when the complex was stormed.
Musharraf will have just two months to try to persuade voters his political party can deliver what others have not.
The odds are clearly stacked against Musharraf, a former commando who during the 1965 war with India leapt into a burning artillery gun to remove shells that would have killed wounded comrades had they burst.
While in power, he infuriated everyone -- from the chief justice, whom he sacked, to lawyers who led a movement against him, to clerics.
But Musharraf always held up the economy as one of his successes and some businessmen are nostalgic for the days when he ruled.
Critics have said he suffers from a "saviour complex" and perhaps that is what led him home to face possible dangers.
One of Musharraf's favourite films is the Hollywood blockbuster "Gladiator" -- the tale of a Roman general's triumph over the wicked emperor who betrayed him.
Musharraf ended his airport speech by leading chants of "We will save Pakistan".
(This story adds the dropped word "and" in the eighth paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Simon Cameron-Moore; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Ron Popeski)