- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

UPDATED:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

The embattled government of President Asif Ali Zardari agreed Sunday to reinstate a deposed Supreme Court justice in an attempt to end nationwide protests that threaten the nation’s fragile democracy, politicians said.

The decision came as a battle between the president and supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif played out on the streets of downtown Lahore, with rock-throwing protesters waging running battles with police as a motorcade prepared to depart for an anti-government demonstration in Islamabad on Monday.

News reports said that the current prime minister would announce plans to reinstate deposed Supreme Court Justice Iftikar Mohammad Chaudhry in a nationwide address Monday.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was also expected to announce efforts to reverse a recent Supreme Court decision that had banned Mr. Sharif from politics.

The former justice’s fate and Mr. Sharif’s political future had combined to trigger an outburst of anti-government rage that paralyzed the country at a time when the West needs its cooperation battling al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called both Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari over the weekend, urging them to mend their differences.

Anti-government protests turned violent Sunday when police surrounded the home of Mr. Sharif in Lahore and attempted to place him under house arrest.

Mr. Sharif defied the arrest order by leaving his house in a motorcade and driving to downtown Lahore, where he managed to calm the demonstrators.

“Police cannot suppress the spirit behind the movement, which has been launched for the independence of judiciary. This march will change destiny of the nation,” Mr. Sharif said.

The protesters led by Mr. Sharif then headed for Islamabad, a four-hour drive, in a motorcade that is slated to arrive Monday to demand that Mr. Zardari fulfill a pledge to reinstate all judges who were fired during the previous military government.

Protests are being led by lawyers and opposition parties that have rallied to support Mr. Sharif.

The turmoil threatens to undo a year of democratic rule in the nuclear-armed nation and leading U.S. ally.

Pakistani media on Sunday and early Monday reported on a flurry of crisis meetings and telephone conversations involving the nation’s top power brokers: Mr. Gilani, the prime minister; Mr. Zardari, the president and widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; and Mr. Sharif, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition.

The ultimate power broker in the talks was army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who reportedly persuaded the president to soften his opposition to reinstating Mr. Chaudhry.

Pakistani media also reported that Mr. Zardari agreed, apparently under army pressure, to end federal rule of Mr. Sharif’s stronghold of Punjab province and allow Mr. Sharif to again run for public office.

Raja Zafarul Haq, a senior leader in Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, or PML-N, said the prime minister and Mr. Sharif had spoken by telephone twice during the past 24 hours. “Positive developments have been made during talks,” Mr. Haq said.

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the opposition leader in the National Assembly, said he had received a phone call from the prime minister, who said the former chief justice would be reinstated.

“It was the biggest struggle of lawyers, media and civil society in Pakistan and it has reached its logical conclusion,” he said.

A leader of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party and Cabinet minister, Nabil Gabol, said the nation will soon hear good news.

“I am not authorized to say anything before the prime minister’s speech,” he said.

But he said the president, prime minister and Cabinet are on board. “The nation will soon hear good news.”

A senior leader of the lawyers’ movement, Munir A. Malik, said he also had information about a possible government announcement on the restoration of deposed judges.

The former chief justice was dismissed by President Pevez Musharraf in 2007, triggering protests that forced Mr. Musharraf from power. Mr. Zardari had promised to reinstate the chief justice but later changed his mind.

• Raza Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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