Islamabad, Pakistan - The United States intervened in Pakistan's political crisis Sunday, delivering a strong message of concern over the coalition government's infighting as the country's leaders remained deadlocked.
Richard Boucher, the assistant secretary of State for South Asia, met in London with Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, heads of Pakistan's two main political parties, where they were trying to agree on a formula for restoring the judges fired in November by President Pervez Musharraf.
Some of Sharif's ministers, including the country's finance minister, are likely to quit the Cabinet Monday to protest the government's inability to fulfill its pledge to bring back the judiciary, destabilizing the country further and playing into Musharraf's hands.
Before flying back to Pakistan Sunday, a despondent Sharif admitted: "There is deadlock... I think every Pakistani is disappointed with the outcome of these talks."
US officials denied that Boucher was mediating or attempting to impose a solution to the Pakistani leaders on the judicial issue. But Western diplomats said Boucher had expressed deep frustration over the way that the six-week-old Pakistani government has become entangled in a constitutional wrangle to the neglect of other pressing issues, especially fighting terrorism.
"The message is 'get on with it'," said one Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak on the record. "There's a major energy crisis, food price (rises) and terrorism."
Pakistan has been hit by a crippling shortage of electricity and a spike in food prices that is threatening to cause civil unrest, and is confronted by an insurgency by local and international violent extremists. The U.S. embassy in Islamabad declined to discuss Boucher's agenda but specifically ruled out interference over the judiciary.
"The restoration of judges is Pakistan's issue to solve. It is not for the United States to prescribe solutions. Our interest is in supporting Pakistan's democratic transition and continuing our common struggle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda," said Elizabeth Colton, spokesperson for the US mission in Islamabad.
Privately, Zardari has blamed U.S. pressure for his unwillingness to restore the judges, but diplomats in Islamabad believe that Zardari, who became leader of the Pakistan People's Party after the assassination of his wife Benazir Bhutto, is trying to fob off the responsibility to Washington.
Lawyers, who have campaigned for the reinstatement of the judges, have repeatedly said the Bush administration has been working against their movement. But analysts believe that the pressure on Zardari is being applied primarily by Musharraf, a close American ally in the "war on terror", who has made clear that he will not tolerate the reversal of his judicial coup. Musharraf, the former army chief, provided a legal amnesty for Zardari, under which corruption and even murder cases have been dropped against him.
Among Pakistanis, the Bush administration is so closely associated with the Musharraf that many regard their interests as the same.
"The Americans are ruthless people, they think they rule this world," said Munawar Hassan, secretary general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan's two mainstream Islamist parties. "Their interest is basically in Pervez Musharraf. If the judiciary is revived, I think Pervez Musharraf will be declared unconstitutional."
Sharif had extended the original deadline for restoring the judges - his key promise in the February elections - to Monday. Unless there is a last-minute deal, which looks unlikely, he has vowed to pull his ministers from the Cabinet Monday That will throw the government into chaos, not least because finance minister, Ishaq Dar, is a member of Sharif's party and was due to announce the federal budget shortly.
Although Sharif has said that he will still support the government in parliament, for now, in the hope that the judges issue will still be resolved, the move would start a renewed cleavage in Pakistani politics.
Zardari's only alternative coalition partners to maintain a majority in parliament are parties allied with Musharraf. Sharif will get pulled in the other direction, by the country's popular lawyers' movement that he has championed. They are now likely to take to the streets, and he may have to join them.
The two political parties cannot agree on a method for restoring the judges. Zardari insists on retaining the judges appointed by Musharraf to replace those he fired and that an act of parliament is required to bring the others back. Sharif maintains that the dismissal of the judiciary was illegal and so no legislation is required to undo it.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.