- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Television images of police dragging supporters of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif into vans and hauling them off to jail prompted reports of a rift between the president and prime minister in Pakistan’s government.

Mr. Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, or PML-N, said more than 500 activists were arrested Wednesday, as police moved to prevent a protest that was to begin Thursday and culminate with a sit-in Monday in front of the nation’s parliament.

“So far no major leader of the party has been arrested. Only workers have been arrested. Houses of several leaders and parliament members of the Muslim League have been raided but they were not present at homes, because the leadership has directed us to avoid detentions,” party spokesman Sadiqul Farooq told The Washington Times.

Authorities in the populous eastern provinces of Punjab and Sindh banned public gatherings.

A Feb. 25 decision by President Asif Ali Zardari to dismiss the provincial government of Punjab, which was dominated by the PML-N, and impose federal rule triggered the unrest. That decision followed a Supreme Court ruling banning Mr. Sharif from public office.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told senators at a dinner that the government intends to end federal rule in Punjab as soon as possible and will support the formation of a government in the province by any party with a majority.

Mr. Gilani said he will discuss the matter Thursday with Mr. Zardari, and hoped that they will arrive at a decision to resolve the issue, according to local media reports.

Besides the PML-N, other opposition parties and a lawyers’ coalition have joined the protest, with the lawyers demanding the reinstatement of all Supreme Court justices dismissed by former President Pervez Musharraf.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood urged parties to resolve their differences and respect the rule of law.

“Our position remains basically that we support freedom of speech, of expression, of assembly in Pakistan,” Mr. Wood said.

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson and British High Commissioner Robert Brinkley held a series of meetings with officials in government and the opposition.

“Hundreds of lawyers have been arrested,” said Athar Minallah, a leader of the lawyers´ movement.

“The long march is for the supremacy of the judiciary, for the supremacy of the constitution and rule of law. The whole nation is supporting the movement,” Mr. Minallah told The Times.

Information Minister Sherry Rehman explained the crackdown as an attempt to “avoid bloodshed in the streets.”

“Pakistan’s constitutional and democratically elected government cannot allow the rule of law to be replaced by the law of the jungle,” she said in a statement issued by her office.

Local news reports said Mr. Gilani, the prime minister, had opposed the imposition of federal rule in Punjab.

Spokesmen for both Mr. Gilani and Mr. Zardari, who was visiting Iran, dismissed rumors of possible army intervention to halt the turmoil as unfounded.

Pakistan has a history of military coups.

Talat Masood, a retired general and leading analyst, criticized Mr. Zardari, saying the president was taking “unilateral and unpopular steps.”

“It is possible that the army might intervene and back the prime minister to protect the system from derailment. The prime minister’s role is conciliatory. He is following a balanced approach. He is acceptable to all,” Mr. Masood told The Times.

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