US officials are worried about a growing political crisis in nuclear-armed Pakistan, where the government has arrested hundereds of opposition activists and lawyers are heading to Islamabad for a major anti-government rally. Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, spoke by phone to Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president and Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, late Thursday night, while Anne Patterson, the US ambassador, met with Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's opposition leader.
Pakistani officials were also locked in a flurry of talks last night seeking a compromise. Yesterday, police stopped about 200 lawyers from entering Sindh province en route to Islamabad, witnesses and participants said. No arrests were made, and the protesters vowed to find another way to get to the capital for Monday's rally which is calling for Mr Zardari to reinstate judges sacked by the former president, Gen Pervez Musharraf.
Last night, Mr Sharif said he was still open to dialogue with Mr Zardari, if the Pakistani president was prepared to make good on his election promises. Many activists are now comparing Mr Zardari to his predecessor, who took power in a military coup in 1999 and imposed a state of emergency rule in 2007 a potentially worrying sign for Washington as it seeks a stable, friendly Pakistani leadership to tackle al Qa'eda and Taliban militants near the Afghan border.
Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff responsible for the region, said he was "extremely concerned" by the crisis. The situation "continues to deteriorate very, very slowly under a political leadership which is very challenged because of the totality of the crisis," he said in an interview with PBS's Charlie Rose broadcast on Thursday. However, Admiral Mullen said he did not believe the crisis would lead to military intervention, as Pakistan's Gen Ashfaq Kayani, was "committed to a civilian government".
The lawyer's movement has been calling for the reinstatement of the judges, including the Supreme Court justice, Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry. When Mr Zardari and his allies were elected into government in February last year, they vowed to reinstate the judges within 30 days of taking office. While most have now been restored to their posts, some have not, including Mr Chaudhry. Mr Zardari is believed to fear that those judges could move to limit his power or reopen corruption cases against him.
Over the past year, the protest lost some of its momentum as the country tried to grapple with an economic downturn and growing militancy in its northwest province, but gathered pace last month when the Supreme Court banned Mr Sharif and his brother from elected office. The federal government then dismissed the Punjab provincial administration led by Mr Sharif's brother, stoking anger in Pakistan's most populous region and putting the pair and their supporters on a collision course with Mr Zardari.
Mr Sharif, who is seen as closer to conservative Islamist forces than Mr Zardari, told a television station yesterday that he did not want to destabilise the country. "I have no personal enmity with Zardari. If he shuns vested interest and sincerely fulfills his promises to reinstate judges and restore an independent judiciary, I am ready to co- operate with him," Mr Sharif told Geo television. Government officials have said they would allow protesters only to gather in a park close to the capital, vowing to keep them from massing outside parliament or elsewhere downtown.
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