- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN (AP) - Pakistan’s president may let the opposition regain the leadership of the country’s most powerful province as part of an effort to ease a political crisis that threatens his shaky U.S.-allied government, a senior aide said Friday.

A second presidential aide said there appeared to be progress toward a resolution of the crisis but cautioned that details of any deal were still being worked out. Both aides requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks between the two sides.

A spokesman for the opposition declined to discuss any possible agreement.

As top political leaders met, police continued to crack down on opposition activists and lawyers vowing to march on the capital and stage a sit-in Monday outside Parliament. The U.S. and other Western nations are worried the turmoil will distract the government from the fight against al-Qaida and Taliban militants.

On Thursday, Richard Holbrooke, an Obama administration envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, spoke by phone to President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, while U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.

The crisis stems from Zardari’s refusal to reinstate a group of judges as demanded by activist lawyers.

It deepened last month when the Supreme Court banned Sharif and his brother from elected office. Zardari quickly dismissed the Punjab provincial administration led by Sharif’s brother, and handed the reins to a federally appointed regional governor, putting the two largest political parties on a collision course.

Reports of progress in ending the dispute followed talks between Zardari and powerful army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The military, which has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its 61 years in existence, has played a role in resolving past political disputes.

Hours after that meeting, the president’s camp indicated the government was offering to lift the governor’s rule in Punjab and allow Sharif’s party to elect a new chief minister, the senior aide said.

The aide said the mechanics would be worked out in an expected meeting between the prime minister and Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, possibly later Friday. The issue of the judges, however, was still being discussed, the aide said.

A Sharif spokesman declined to discuss any deal, but noted that Zardari had backtracked on promises before and said the opposition leader was committed to getting the judges restored.

“Asif Ali Zardari has zero credibility _ zero, a very, very big zero,” Sadiqul Farooq said. Any deal would require “dependable guarantors,” he added.

The government has mobilized police throughout the country to thwart the protest movement and arrested several hundred activists and lawyers.

Early Friday, police stopped about 200 lawyers in a convoy of cars and buses from entering Sindh province en route to Islamabad, witnesses and participants said. No arrests were made, and the protesters vowed to find another way to get to the capital.

The crackdown extended into Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, where officials with Sharif’s party said Friday that a few dozen activists were detained. The provincial government announced a ban on rallies, joining Punjab and Sindh provinces.

Most of the judges fired by Musharraf have been restored to their posts, but the government has ignored a few, including the former chief justice. Zardari is believed to fear those judges could move to limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him. His supporters say the old chief justice has become a political figure and will no longer be neutral.

___

Associated Press writers Nahal Toosi and Chris Brummitt contributed to this report.

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