- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) - Pakistan’s government considered cutting a deal with the opposition Friday to ease a political crisis undermining its shaky one-year rule, but stepped up a nationwide crackdown on demonstrators converging on the capital for a major rally.

The opposition warned that distrust between the two camps meant any agreement would be hard to broker, a blow to hopes for a quick resolution of a standoff that risks distracting the government as it faces rising al-Qaida and Taliban violence.

The U.S. has been pressing all sides in the dispute to resolve their differences. It wants nuclear-armed Pakistan to stay stable and focused on the militant threat to help boost the faltering war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.

The crisis stems from President Asif Ali Zardari’s refusal to accept demands from activist lawyers that he reinstate a group of judges fired by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf. It deepened last month when the Supreme Court banned opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from elected office.

Hours after the court’s verdict, Zardari dismissed the Punjab provincial administration led by Sharif’s brother and handed the reins to a federally appointed regional governor. Sharif urged Pakistanis to join the lawyers’ planned march, putting the country’s two largest political parties on a collision course.

Reports of new efforts to end the dispute followed talks between Zardari and the country’s powerful army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. The military has often played a role in resolving political disputes in Pakistan’s 61-year history, sometimes staging coups.

On Thursday, Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, spoke by phone to Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, while U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson met with Sharif in an attempt to broker a deal. Patterson also huddled with Gilani late Friday, his spokesman said.

A senior aide to Zardari said he may allow the opposition to regain the leadership in Punjab, the country’s most populous and powerful province, to help ease the turmoil. That would involve lifting the governor’s rule and letting Sharif’s party elect a new chief minister, he said.

It was unclear how much impact that would have on resolving the dispute because it does not address the movement’s main concern _ the restoration of independent-minded judges that many believe could be hostile to Zardari.

A second aide said “it looks like we are going toward some kind of resolution” to the crisis, but cautioned that the details of any deal were still in the works. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

A Sharif spokesman declined to discuss any deal, but noted that Zardari had backtracked on promises before.

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

Sharif denies he has latched on to the protests as a way to gain personal power or bring down the government, insisting he wants to strengthen Pakistani democracy. However, in an interview with a local TV channel, he warned that by holding out on the judges, Zardari may have to exit his term early.

“I don’t think he will be able to complete his five years,” said Sharif, a former prime minister.

Aside from black-suited lawyers, the call for an independent judiciary has drawn together some unlikely bedfellows, including human rights activists, leftists wearing Che Guevara T-shirts and Islamist party activists seeking to benefit from any new political order.

Since Thursday, the activists have gathered in various cities in bids to travel to the capital, where they hope to stage a sit-in at Parliament starting Monday until their demands are met. Baton-swinging police have tried to stop the gatherings, and several hundred activists have been arrested.

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.

Turnout at many of the gatherings has been relatively small _ a few hundred people at most. The government says that shows the movement is not as strong as its members claim. Activists say the arrests have forced many people underground and expect far larger crowds when people gather in the Punjab on Sunday to begin the journey to Islamabad.

The government has hauled in shipping containers to barricade roads leading to the capital and all routes to the Parliament building.

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 Munir Ahmad and Chris Brummitt contributed to this report.

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