- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistan’s ruling coalition teetered on the brink of collapse Saturday as the two main partners squabbled over a successor to ousted President Pervez Musharraf.

Former Prime Minster Nawaz Sharif, who heads the junior partner in the coalition, demanded the dominant Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) slash the president’s powers before he would support its candidate.

Asif Ali Zardari, head of the PPP and widower of the party’s assassinated leader Benazir Bhutto, agreed Saturday to run for the presidency.

Mr. Sharif also pushed forward the deadline for restoration of dozens of judges removed by Mr. Musharraf - another key issue dividing the two main parties since they forced the president from power less than a week ago.

Still, pressure was building for the two sides to end differences that appeared increasingly irreconcilable.

Presidential elections by parliament were set for Sept. 6 and the political infighting is a distraction from militant violence flaring in the volatile northwest, where 37 insurgents were killed Saturday in retaliation for a string of deadly suicide bombings.

Though Mr. Zardari is a longtime Musharraf critic, he would likely continue the former general’s support for the U.S.-led war against terrorism.

But Mr. Zardari’s climb to power would dismay many in this nation of 160 million who view him as a symbol of corruption that tainted its last experiment with civilian rule in the 1990s.

He won the nickname “Mr. 10 Percent” amid charges of graft during his wife’s terms as prime minister.

Despite the backing of the PPP, his election is far from certain.

Mr. Sharif, who heads the second-largest party in parliament, demanded after meeting with Mr. Zardiri’s lieutenants Saturday that the PPP agree to sharply reduce the powers of the new president before he’d support its candidate.

Mr. Sharif wants the head of state to be deprived of the constitutional right to dissolve parliament or to appoint chiefs of the armed forces - but Mr. Zardari’s name was thrown into the race without any such guarantee.

The PPP, fearing the loss of its coalition partner, has already started seeking support from other smaller parties.

The crisis comes as Pakistan is increasingly threatened by extremist violence.

The ruling coalition - united primarily by hatred of Mr. Musharraf - dabbled in peace talks with the militants soon after taking power five months ago, something the former president briefly tried as well.

But after limited success, they have increasingly relied on military force to try to beat back al Qaeda and Taliban-linked insurgents in the remote and rugged tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan.

The militants have responded with force in recent days.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for one of the country’s deadliest-ever terrorist attacks, a twin suicide bombing at a massive government weapons complex that killed 67 people and injured more than 100 on Thursday.

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