U.S., Pakistani army chief crucial to resolving crisis?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 16, 2009 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's government capitulated Monday to opposition demands to restore judicial independence after the country's powerful army and the United States refused to give President Asif Ali Zardari full and unqualified backing, Pakistani and U.S. officials said.

A tumultuous week that began with protest marches and a harsh nationwide crackdown could have exploded into violence Monday, but instead the government publicly agreed at 6 a.m. to the demonstrators' key demand to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the former chief justice.

The announcement by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani came hours before a massive throng of lawyers, opposition parties and civil activists from around the country was due to descend on Islamabad for an indefinite sit-in until Chaudhry was restored.

"This is the first victory for the people in the history of Pakistan," said Hamid Khan, one of the leaders of the lawyers movement that campaigned tirelessly for Chaudhry. "This is the first time that the ruling elite had to bow to the pressure of the people."

U.S. and Pakistani officials said that Pakistan's army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who'd met frequently with Zardari and Gilani in recent days, played a key role in defusing the confrontation. Kayani called on Gilani late Sunday night, and both went to see Zardari at about midnight for a meeting that ended at 1 a.m.

U.S. officials thought that there were two reasons for Zardari's capitulation.

The first was that Kayani warned Zardari that he wouldn't be able to count on the military to confront the demonstrators and prevent them from marching into central Islamabad.

"I don't think the military would fire on Pakistani demonstrators and political types," a senior U.S. official said. A second U.S. official said that the Obama administration, in contacts with Kayani, framed Pakistan's internal conflict as a constitutional issue, implying that it supported Chaudhry's reinstatement. The message, he said, was that "on issues of constitutional rights, it is . . . for Pakistan to decide."

The two officials requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy.

Second, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear in a telephone call to Zardari that he couldn't count on the unqualified support of the United States, unlike his predecessor, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had the full backing of the Bush administration when he launched a similar crackdown on Chaudhry's supporters in 2007.

"The message to Zardari was that `it's not "till death do us part." ' It put him on notice that he could not push this stuff. We have been pushing him since the beginning of this crisis to find a solution," the senior U.S. official said. "And as he looked where he was going with this, he realized that he could not win."

"With the administration's blessing, Kayani played the key role in this, and he left Zardari with no choice except to give in to the protesters and Nawaz and reinstate Chaudhry," said a veteran U.S. intelligence expert on South Asia, referring to opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. Kayani has "been as nervous as a cat about this whole thing, but his concern is about tearing the army apart. His political ambitions are limited to where he is now." The expert spoke anonymously because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.

Pakistanis savored a victory Monday for democracy and the people's power, the culmination of a two-year-long struggle by lawyers for judicial independence, embodied by Chaudhry, an activist judge whom Musharraf fired in 2007.

The resolution of the dispute offered a new chance for stability in nuclear-armed Pakistan, which has lurched from crisis to crisis. Judicial independence has become the burning political issue in the country, drawing attention from the battle against Islamic extremism, which has exasperated Washington and other Western allies. The opposition challenge had threatened to lead to bloody clashes and paralyze Pakistan.

A spontaneous carnival erupted Monday around Chaudhry's official residence in Islamabad, where he continued to live despite being ousted from the top judicial job. The celebrations lasted all day and into the night. Lawyers, political activists and ordinary Pakistanis thronged around the home, playing drums, waving the flags of their political parties and chanting slogans. At one point, a smartly uniformed bagpipe band turned up to play in the manicured lawns of Chaudhry's house.

"Rule of law has won," said a 22-year-old lawyer, Shahzad Riaz, standing outside Chaudhry's home. "If there's no rule of law, there is no justice, no unity, no nation."

One group of activists, some of whom were from as far away as Karachi, carried a fake coffin. With the restoration of the top judge, "We are burying dictatorship," explained Mohammad Farooq, a 21-year-old student at an Islamic seminary.

Chaudhry was relaxed and good-humored Monday, not seeming like a man who'd carried the nation's hopes for democracy and justice for the last two years. With a broad smile, wearing an open-neck shirt and blazer, he greeted a continuous line of well-wishers who queued to shake his hand at his home. He also appeared on the balcony to wave to the ecstatic crowds but said nothing publicly.

Zardari's pro-Western government has been shaken and weakened by the climb-down over Chaudhry, which handed victory to Sharif, who'd thrown his full weight behind the lawyers movement. Sharif joined other conservative parties, which are frequent critics of U.S. anti-terrorism policy, in supporting the lawyers' struggle.

"From here, God willing, the fate of this nation will change," Sharif said, speaking to followers in his home province of Punjab. "From here, a journey of development will start. From here, a revolution will come."

First Musharraf and then Zardari underestimated the role that Pakistan's feisty news media would play, broadcasting near-continuous and sympathetic coverage of the lawyers' movement. Liberalized after 2002, Pakistan now has dozens of 24-hour news stations, keeping even remote areas informed about current affairs.

The government tried to put a brave face on the chief justice announcement, saying that it had succeeded in staving off a crisis.

"It's a sign of maturity to recognize the situation and act decisively. It is an acceptance of people's will, not a sign of weakness," said Farahnaz Ispahani, a member of parliament and a spokeswoman for the president.

In a stark reminder of the terrorist threat that's facing Pakistan, which has been eclipsed by the political crisis, a suicide bombing late Monday at a bus stand near Islamabad killed at least nine people and wounded 18.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington. John Walcott contributed to this article from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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