Sharif sets new ultimatum for Pakistan coalition | world | Hindustan Times
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Sharif sets new ultimatum for Pakistan coalition

Pakistani leaders temporarily averted a crisis threatening to tear apart their shaky ruling coalition , a day after suicide bombings at the country's largest weapons factory demonstrated the need for strong leadership.

world Updated: Aug 22, 2008 19:35 IST

Pakistani leaders temporarily averted a crisis threatening to tear apart their shaky ruling coalition Friday, a day after suicide bombings at the country's largest weapons factory demonstrated the need for strong leadership. The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had threatened to quit the governing coalition without an agreement by Friday on the reinstatement of judges fired by Pervez Musharraf, who resigned the presidency this week.

After talks with other coalition leaders, Sharif set Wednesday as a new deadline already the third since 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 Musharraf, but have since resurfaced.

The tensions come as the country faces renewed resistance from militants. They staged twin suicide bombings Thursday 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 Musharraf last year and who should succeed him as head of state.

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

The two largest parties in the ruling coalition joined forces against Musharraf after sweeping aside his allies in February parliamentary elections.

The United States and other Western countries, who had counted for years on Musharraf to counter al-Qaida 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. Sharif on Friday accused Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former premier Benazir Bhutto and leader of the People's Party, of failing to respect an agreement to bring back the justices within 24 hours of 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 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."

Sharif, a bitter foe of Musharraf, 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, leader of a small Islamist party. Sharif argues that a simple order from the prime minister is enough to restore the judges. But Zardari has consistently blocked that, arguing that it requires a constitutional amendment. 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. Zardari, like 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. Sharif, meanwhile, may view the judges as likely allies if he follows through with threats to have Musharraf tried for treason _ a charge punishable by death. Sharif has also been more reserved than Zardari about embracing Pakistan's unpopular role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism.

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

A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for Thursday's attack in Wah, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) outside the capital Islamabad. He said it was revenge for army operations in the Bajur region.

On Friday, Pakistan's military said it killed up to 16 militants in a clash in the northwest part of the country.