ISLAMABAD, Pakistan &

A Pakistani opposition leader said today that U.S-backed anti-terror operations have left Pakistan "drowned in blood," issuing some of his harshest criticism yet of President Pervez Musharraf.




Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who was ousted by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, made his comments to a rally of 3,000 supporters near Islamabad. It was his first major campaign speech since the assassination last month of Benazir Bhutto, another opposition leader and former prime minister.




"Musharraf has destroyed Pakistan. He is blindly following America's orders," Sharif said. "The whole of Pakistan is drowned in blood."




He alleged the army left "girls riddled with bullets" when it raided a pro-Taliban mosque and female seminary in the capital last year. The government said more than 100 extremists were killed in the operation, and disputed claims that female students also died.




In Karachi, where a suicide bomber targeted Bhutto in October &

more than two months before her death &

a bomb concealed in a fruit cart exploded, killing four people.




It was not immediately clear who was behind the explosion. Islamist militants have been blamed for a growing number of bloody attacks in Pakistan, but violent crime also plagues the volatile city of 15 million people.




Bhutto's party, meanwhile, said it may work with Musharraf after the Feb. 18 parliamentary polls, despite his apparent unpopularity and allegations that elements within his government may have been involved in the former prime minister's assassination.




The developments highlight the fluid nature of Pakistani politics ahead of the polls, which the United States and other Western nations hope will usher in stability as the country battles rising attacks by al-Qaida and Taliban militants.




In the latest violence, suspected pro-Taliban militants ambushed a military convoy in a tribal region close to the border with Afghanistan, sparking a clash that left 23 fighters and seven troops dead, said army spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.




The insurgents said they captured 17 troops, but denied suffering any fatalities.




Musharraf, who late last year gave up his position as army chief, faces the prospect of a hostile parliament and possible impeachment if the opposition does well in the elections. Many expect Bhutto and Sharif's parties to improve their current representation in parliament, but it remains to be seen if they can secure the two-thirds majority needed to force him from office.




A spokesman for Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party said "all options are open" when asked whether it would cooperate with Musharraf.




"These are bridges which we will cross when they come," Farhatullah Babar said, echoing remarks reported in Pakistani media by Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, now the de-facto party head.




Many analysts predict any cooperation between Musharraf and Bhutto's party would be short-lived and unstable, given likely opposition by the group's rank and file.




But it would represent a matchup of secular, moderate forces and, as such, could be welcomed by the West.




Adding to the uncertainty, opposition parties are threatening to reject the results of the elections if they are rigged. That would deepen Pakistan's political turmoil and likely trigger street violence.




Bhutto was a secular politician popular in the West for her opposition to hard-line Islam. The government has blamed her Dec. 27 murder in a gun and suicide bomb attack on a prominent militant who had reportedly threatened to kill her.




But her political party and family members have accused the government of failing to provide her with sufficient security. Some have made vague allegations that elements within the government may have been involved.