- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 25, 2007

KARACHI, Pakistan — Two exiled former prime ministers of Pakistan will join forces this week to try to drive President Pervez Musharraf from power, according to party officials and supporters.

Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif agreed to cooperate during a meeting in London after weeks of political crisis in Pakistan, which have left Gen. Musharraf with a tenuous grip on power.

Thousands of the two former leaders’ supporters were expected to take to the streets today in coordinated demonstrations, culminating in a rally in the capital, Islamabad.

Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League will protest Gen. Musharraf’s decision to fire the country’s chief justice, who had opposed the general’s attempts to extend his claim on power.

But a close ally of Mrs. Bhutto made clear Saturday that the ultimate goal is the removal of Gen. Musharraf, who is also army chief of staff.

“The seriousness of the crisis in Pakistan means that we have formulated a joint strategy to neutralize General Musharraf and ensure that the next elections are free and fair,” said Wajid Shamsul Hasan, a former Pakistani ambassador to Britain.

“This has become a very explosive situation for Musharraf. He should go, and the army should go back to barracks.”

A spokesman for Mr. Sharif said: “We want his resignation and then free and fair elections without Musharraf. With him sitting there, you cannot get free elections.”

Gen. Musharraf wants Pakistan’s National Assembly to extend his rule for five more years before it is dissolved for elections, due later this year.

The chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, said the plans were unconstitutional and pressed for Gen. Musharraf to surrender his army post as well. Gen. Musharraf suspended him on March 9, claiming the judge had abused his position. The move provoked the worst crisis since Gen. Musharraf overthrew Mr. Sharif and seized power in 1999.

The pact between Mr. Sharif and Mrs. Bhutto is significantbecause public protests over the firing had been led by lawyers rather than politicians.

A half-dozen judges, including a high court judge and deputy attorney general, have tendered their resignations, and 16 others are expected to step down in protest.

If they return to Pakistan, Mrs. Bhutto and Mr. Sharif face arrest on corruption charges, which they both say are politically motivated. They are still the de facto leaders of their political parties.

After two hours of talks with Mrs. Bhutto, Mr. Sharif said: “We have jointly decided to struggle against this military dictatorship and do everything within our means to stop the brutalities Musharraf is committing against institutions in Pakistan.”

He met with Mrs. Bhutto after rumors began that she had been in talks with Gen. Musharraf. Mr. Hasan, Mrs. Bhutto’s ally, accused Gen. Musharraf’s supporters of spreading the rumors to divide the opposition.

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