- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 14, 2010

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan’s prime minister sought to defuse tension Sunday over a Supreme Court decision to strike down a presidential order appointing two top judges, saying the dispute would not threaten political stability.

But the country’s leading opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif, sought to play up the issue to pressure President Asif Ali Zardari, saying his decision to appoint two judges opposed by the court showed he was “the biggest threat to democracy.”

Mr. Zardari has clashed with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry in the past, and the court’s decision to reject the appointments late Saturday, only hours after they were announced, sparked fears that the conflict could destabilize Pakistan at a time when it is battling a raging Taliban-led insurgency.

“Today, if there is really a danger to democracy, it is through these kinds of acts by Zardari,” Mr. Sharif told reporters. “The government is attacking the judiciary to protect its corruption.”

Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira responded by saying Mr. Sharif had spoken in anger and would “certainly correct his position.”

The president’s push for judges opposed by the court came about two months after it struck down an amnesty protecting Mr. Zardari and several other senior politicians from graft charges.

But Prime Minister Yousaf Reza Gilani denied the appointments had anything to do with the court’s previous ruling and seemed to take a moderate stance on working through the latest disagreement.

“I want to give a message to the nation that the country’s institutions are strong, and we will work within our domains,” Mr. Gilani told reporters. “Let the court interpret.”

The government is scheduled to present its case before the court on Feb. 18.

“If our stand is accepted, that is perfect. If not, we will accept that,” said Mr. Kaira, the information minister. “What is there to fight over?”

Saturday’s ruling came after Mr. Zardari appointed a new Supreme Court judge and chief of the Lahore High Court, going against the recommendation of the Supreme Court. The Pakistani Constitution says the president must consult with the Supreme Court over the appointment of new judges.

The court order said no consultation had taken place and Mr. Zardari’s appointments “appeared to be in violation of the provision of the constitution” — a position disputed by the government.

Mr. Zardari has had a tense relationship with the court’s chief justice, and refused to reinstate him for many months after he was fired by former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf despite promising to do so. Mr. Zardari eventually was forced to relent last year after demonstrations that exposed his political vulnerability and the clout of the judiciary.

Some local media speculated Sunday that Mr. Zardari similarly would have to back down this time and agree to the court’s recommendations on the appointments, while also criticizing the court for escalating political tension in the country. “Historically, clashes between these two institutions have led to disastrous consequences for democracy and constitutional continuity in the country,” the respected Dawn newspaper said in an editorial. “The fate of a high court judge here or a retired Supreme Court judge there should not hold the country’s political future hostage.”

The tension will concern Pakistan’s Western allies, who want the country to concentrate on battling al Qaeda and Taliban militants in the northwest. The stability of the nuclear-armed nation is also key to Washington’s hopes of defeating the insurgency just across the border in Afghanistan.

The United States has pressed Pakistan to target militants launching cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan, but the government has resisted, saying it has its hands full battling local fighters waging war against the state.

In response, the United States has stepped up its use of drone missiles strikes in Pakistan’s northwest, including one Sunday that struck a house in the North Waziristan tribal area, killing five people, Pakistani intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Also Sunday, an explosion ripped through a busy intersection in southern Pakistan, killing three people in an area that has mostly avoided violence in the past.

The blast, which was still being investigated, also wounded nine people in Sindh province’s Dadu city, hospital official Rafiq Kolachi said.

If authorities determine the blast was caused by a bomb, it would be a rare attack in Sindh, outside the provincial capital of Karachi. The migration of violence beyond Pakistan’s northwest, where most Taliban militants are located, has been a growing problem for the country.

Meanwhile, a top Pakistan Taliban commander, Qari Hussain, claimed responsibility Sunday for twin suicide bombings last week outside a police station in the northwestern town of Bannu that killed 15 people. It was the latest of numerous attacks by militants on security forces over the past several years aimed at undermining the public’s confidence in the already-weak state.

Associated Press writers Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Rasool Dawar in Mir Ali contributed to this report.

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