Pakistan Coalition Averts Crisis After Blasts

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A day after suicide blasts at Pakistan’s largest arms factory killed 67 people, Pakistani leaders today temporarily averted a crisis that threatened to tear apart their shaky ruling coalition.

The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had threatened to quit the governing coalition without an agreement by today on the reinstatement of judges fired by Pervez Musharraf, who resigned the presidency this week.

After talks with other coalition leaders, Mr. Sharif set Wednesday as a new deadline — already the third since Mr. Musharraf’s ouster — to restore the judges.

Rifts that have long existed between Sharif’s party and the largest block in Parliament, the Pakistan People’s Party, were submerged as they united to oust Mr. Musharraf, but have since resurfaced.

The tensions come as the country faces renewed resistance from militants. They staged twin suicide bombings yesterday in an attack that highlighted the growing extremist threat in the Muslim world’s only nuclear-armed nation.

Police said the death toll from blasts had climbed to 67 people and that another 102 were wounded, many critically.

The carnage could have been greater: Authorities arrested a man they believe would have been a third bomber not far from the scene, said local police official Mohammed Saeed. He said an explosives jacket was found at a nearby mosque.

The attack, one of the worst-ever in Pakistan, hit one of the country’s most sensitive military installations.

A day after the attacks, Pakistan’s civilian leaders met for talks on how to restore the judges ousted by Mr. Musharraf last year and who should succeed him as head of state.

Pakistan’s election commission announced today that lawmakers will elect the new president on Sept. 6.

Mr. Sharif’s party is the junior partner to the Pakistan People’s Party of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto. They joined forces against Mr. Musharraf after sweeping aside his allies in February parliamentary elections.

America and other Western countries, who had counted for years on Mr. Musharraf to counter al-Qaeda and the Taliban, hoped the democratic mandate of the new government — made of up of moderate parties — would continue that fight.

Ordinary Pakistanis are even more anxious for the government to do something about rising inflation and inequality holding much of the population in poverty.

But the main political parties, staffed by Pakistan’s narrow elite, are traditional rivals whose election pledge to restore an independent judiciary is bogged down in political maneuvering.

Mr. Sharif, a bitter foe of Mr. Musharraf, today accused Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower who leads the Pakistan People’s Party’s of failing to respect an agreement to bring back the justices within 24 hours of Mr. Musharraf’s resignation.

Having granted smaller coalition partners a request for three extra days to consider the ramifications, he said, the parties would draw up a resolution on restoring the judges and introduce it to Parliament on Monday.

A leader of a powerful lawyers’ movement that has mounted street protests in favor of the judges expressed issued a veiled warning against any further backsliding.

“Many promises to the nation have not been honored,” Tariq Mehmood said. “If somebody thinks that people will be satisfied after Musharraf’s removal, let me tell you that people want the rule of law.”

But Mr. Sharif was immediately contradicted by one of two smaller coalition parties.

“Wednesday should not be considered the final word. There could be a delay of a day or two. But you will see results in a week or so,” said Maulana Fazlur Rehman.

Mr. Sharif argues that a simple order from the prime minister is enough to restore the judges. But Mr. Zardari has consistently blocked that, arguing that it requires a constitutional amendment.

Mr. Musharraf, who was also army chief until November, imposed emergency rule and purged the Supreme Court to prevent it from disqualifying him from continuing as a civilian president.

Mr. Zardari, like Mr. Musharraf, accuses the judges of being too political.

Analysts suggest his hostility could also be down to concern that they could reopen long-standing corruption cases against him dating back to his wife’s two spells as prime minister in the 1990s.

Mr. Sharif, meanwhile, may view the judges as likely allies if he follows through with threats to have Mr. Musharraf tried for treason — a charge punishable by death. Mr. Sharif has also been more reserved than Mr. Zardari about embracing Pakistan’s unpopular role in the American-led war on terrorism.

Many Pakistanis say Mr. Musharraf’s heavy-handed use of the army against terrorist strongholds in the northwest has only increased sympathy for the terrorists and emboldened them to strike back with scores of suicide bombings over the past year.

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack in Wah, about 22 miles outside the capital Islamabad. He said it was revenge for army operations in the Bajur region, a terrorist stronghold near the Afghan border.

Today, Pakistan’s military said it killed up to 16 terrorists in a clash in the northwest part of the country. The dead included at least one suicide bomber.


Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad, Asif Shahzad and Stephen Graham contributed to this report.

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