- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 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.”

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 Raza 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,” Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said. “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. Pakistan’s 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 was eventually 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 would similarly have to back down this time and agree to the court’s recommendations on the appointments.

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 U.S. has pressed Pakistan to target militants launching cross-border attacks against coalition troops in Afghanistan.

The U.S. 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.

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