- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

LAHORE, PAKISTAN (AP) - Thousands of anti-government protesters led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif headed to Islamabad on Sunday for a planned sit-in at the parliament, ramping up a power struggle that risks hobbling a vital Western ally in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida.

The protests in Lahore began violently, filling the streets with flying rocks and clouds of tear gas, but turned festive when outnumbered police allowed Sharif to defy his house arrest and join his supporters.

The sit-in planned for Monday is being led by lawyers, opposition parties and civil rights activists demanding President Asif Ali Zardari fulfill a pledge to reinstate judges seen as independent who were fired by his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf.

Sharif, who heads the country’s largest opposition grouping, threw his support behind the lawyers after the Supreme Court barred him and his brother from running for public office, and the sit-in has grown into a broader anti-government movement.

Hundreds of people lined the road, dancing and singing as Sharif’s green SUV was showered with rose petals. Other cars in the convoy had people on the roof, flashing victory signs.

“People have responded very overwhelmingly to the call of the hour, and I am thankful to the nation,” Sharif told a TV channel by phone as the cars crawled forward. “This is a prelude to a revolution.”

But authorities said they wouldn’t let protesters into the government quarter in the capital and have blocked approach roads with shipping containers, including at points on the route taken by Sharif.

A day earlier, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Sharif and Zardari to urge them to resolve their differences.

The West fears nuclear-armed Pakistan is tumbling into political turmoil just a year after democratic elections put an end to the long domination of Musharraf, the former military ruler and close U.S. ally.

In echoes of Musharraf’s drawn-out demise, Zardari faces growing protests for an independent court system and increasing pressure from Washington to compromise with Sharif so that Pakistan can focus on tackling rising militancy along the Afghan border.

A prolonged crisis could lead to early elections or force Zardari to resign, particularly if the powerful military intervenes. Sharif and Islamist parties also taking part in the protest would be well-positioned to benefit from any early elections.

A spokesman for Zardari, who was helped to power by a sympathy vote following the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto, said he would not resign, while the information minister repeated earlier offers of negotiations to end the standoff. “We want to get the nation rid of this situation at the earliest, this state of instability and uncertainty,” Qamar Zaman said.

But there was little sign of any middle ground on Sunday.

Before dawn, hundreds of police surrounded Sharif’s residence in Lahore, carrying an order for his house arrest, party spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed said. Sharif denounced the order as illegal and later left the house in a convoy of vehicles as police stood by. It was unclear why they relented, but Lahore is Sharif’s political stronghold.

Some of the protesters defied police barricades to gather near the city’s main courts complex and pelt riot police with rocks. One mob smashed the windows of buses parked along the route of Sharif’s convoy, while another broke into the main Post Office building, trashing furniture and then clambering onto the roof to hurl rocks at police below.

Police responded with tear gas, and beat several protesters with batons. Associated Press reporters saw several injured officers being helped away. A handful of protesters were detained and bundled into police vans.

Later, the crowd swelled to several thousands and police again pulled back. Many were black-suited lawyers campaigning for the return of judges purged under Musharraf, but most appeared to be supporters of Sharif, equipped with party flags and chanting “Go Zardari go!”

For days, the government has been seeking to squelch the protest movement. Authorities have put the army on alert and temporarily detained hundreds of activists nationwide to prevent them traveling to Lahore or Islamabad.

But its resolve appeared to waver Sunday amid signs of internal party dissent. A day earlier, a prominent minister quit Zardari’s Cabinet, apparently over attempts to censor critical media coverage.

The Sharifs and 16 other protest leaders were initially ordered under house arrest, said Rao Iftikhar, a senior government official. Later, he said authorities reached an “understanding” with Sharif that he would address the protesters in Lahore and then return home _ an arrangement that authorities failed to enforce.

Asif Kirmani, Sharif’s spokesman, said supporters were using cranes to remove shipping containers that authorities had placed across the main road leading out of Lahore and that the opposition leader would drive all night toward the capital, about 180 miles to the northwest.

Sharif accuses Zardari of being behind the Supreme Court ruling last month that disqualified put Sharif and his brother from elected office over convictions dating back to Musharraf’s rule.

Zardari compounded the crisis by dismissing the Sharifs’ administration in Punjab, Pakistan’s biggest and richest province, of which Lahore is the capital.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said he was watching events in Pakistan with “growing concern,” but praised the pledge by Zardari to petition the Supreme Court. He also called on the government to allow peaceful protest.

On Saturday, the government announced it would appeal the Supreme Court ruling in the coming days and offered negotiations on the judiciary _ moves dismissed by Sharif as inadequate.

The ruling party suspects Sharif, in turn, of exploiting the issues to force early elections.

“This is not a fight for restoration of judiciary. This is not a fight for the rights of people,” said Farzana Raja, a leader of Zardari’s ruling party. “This is a fight for personal gains.”

___

Associated Press writers Babar Dogar in Lahore and Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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