- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s government announced its first major concession Saturday in a monthlong political crisis, pledging to appeal a disputed court ruling against a key opposition leader, just hours after Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called both sides apparently to press for a resolution.

The country’s pro-Western President Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are under increasing pressure from the United States, which fears the year-old government is already bogged down in power struggles when it needs to focus on economic problems, as well as Western demands for more help with the faltering war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.

Mr. Sharif vowed to go ahead with mass protests planned for Monday in the capital, even as the government insisted it would enforce a ban and put troops on alert, warning that terrorists could bomb the demonstration.

“This is a flood of people. This flood will break all hurdles. This flood will, God willing, reach its destination,” Mr. Sharif, widely viewed as Pakistan’s most popular politician, told cheering party workers in the eastern city of Lahore.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan lurched back toward turmoil last month when the Supreme Court disqualified Mr. Sharif and his brother from elected office over convictions from an earlier chapter in Pakistan’s often vindictive political history.

Mr. Zardari compounded the crisis by dismissing the Sharifs’ administration in Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest and richest province.

Mr. Sharif then threw his support behind plans by activist lawyers to stage a mass sit-in Monday in front of Parliament in Islamabad to demand an independent judiciary. Mr. Zardari refuses to reinstate a group of judges, including the former Supreme Court chief justice, fired by former military leader Pervez Musharraf.

Mrs. Clinton expressed concern about the crisis in phone calls with Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif on Saturday, Pakistani officials said.

Mrs. Clinton “urged a settlement through negotiations,” Sharif spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed said.

The State Department declined to give any details.

Hours later, the government announced that it would appeal the Supreme Court ruling about the Sharifs in the coming week.

“This is part of the government’s policy to resolve political issues through reconciliation and negotiation,” Zardari spokesman Farhatullah Babar said. “We want to bring down the political temperature.”

Mr. Sharif did not address the concession in his speech.

In another sign of strains in the government, Information Minister Sherry Rehman announced her resignation from the Cabinet after the private Geo TV channel complained that cable TV companies had blocked its programming in several cities.

Geo accused Mr. Zardari of ordering the restrictions - an allegation his spokesman denied.

Mrs. Rehman, who has often spoken in defense of media freedoms, didn’t explain her decision, and the channel appeared to be available again Saturday in major cities.

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