- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

UPDATED:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | President Asif Ali Zardari dismissed the provincial government of Punjab and imposed federal rule for the next two months Wednesday, plunging the nation into turmoil as it faces a growing military threat from Islamic militants.

Mr. Zardari’s action followed a Supreme Court ruling disqualifying from public office his main rival, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Mr. Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, the provincial chief minister in Punjab.

Punjab is the largest and wealthiest of four Pakistani provinces and is considered the nation’s political heartland. It includes Lahore, the nation’s second-largest city, and the capital, Islamabad, and it provides the political base for the Sharif brothers and their party, the largest faction of the Pakistan Muslim League.

Mr. Zardari’s order cited an “an unprecedented and unique constitutional void” created by the court ruling. It named Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer, an appointee of the federal government, as the provincial chief executive.

“President Asif Ali Zardari, on the advice of the prime minister under Article 234 of the Constitution, has imposed governor rule in the province of Punjab with immediate effect for a period of two months,” presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.

The Sharif brothers vowed to work with an alliance of lawyers that helped bring down the previous government led by Pervez Musharraf. Even before Wednesday’s ruling, the lawyers had planned a massive protest in Islamabad next month.

“Everybody knows where the decision came from. Zardari wanted to have a deal with us, which we dismissed. We accept disqualification instead of any compromise on principles,” Nawaz Sharif told reporters at the family residence in Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab.

The Sharifs and their political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, say the present Supreme Court is unconstitutional because many of its justices were named to replace justices fired by Mr. Musharraf in 2007.

Both the PML-N and the lawyers movement are demanding that the dismissed justices be reinstated.

“Zardari failed to fulfill his promises. Instead of reinstating deposed judges, he validated the unconstitutional actions of Musharraf,” Nawaz Sharif said. “Zardari has crossed all the limits. The nation will never accept the verdict.”

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s foreign minister urged the U.S. to transfer control of unmanned aircraft used to target militant suspects to Islamabad.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in Washington to take part in the Obama administration’s review of policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, said he told U.S. officials that “they have to review the strategy vis-a-vis drones.”

“If they are a necessity, then … we are suggesting that the technology be transferred to Pakistan and that will resolve quite a few issues with the people of Pakistan,” Mr. Qureshi told the Public Broadcasting Service’s “NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.”

U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke recently met Nawaz Sharif as part of the U.S. policy review.

The prospect of a nationwide standoff between Mr. Sharif and Mr. Zardari is likely to upset Washington, which is attempting to draft a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Islamic insurgents have gained control of large portions of the impoverished northwest.

Nawaz Sharif served twice as prime minister. His PML-N is the second-largest political party in of the country after the ruling Pakistan People’s Party led by Mr. Zardari.

“Exclusion of the two prominent leaders from the political process of the country will bring negative implications on the future of democracy in the country. These disqualified leaders will now challenge the system in streets,” political analyst Hasan Askari said.

“PML-N will now fully support the lawyers’ movement, because they have now their ax to grind against Zardari and the Supreme Court,” Mr. Askari said

“Nobody can stop the long march,” Athar Minallah, a prominent figure in the lawyers’ movement said of next month’s protest in Islamabad. “We have faced the marshal law of Musharraf. … The government is scared and taking unwise decisions.”

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