(CNSNews.com) – Pakistan’s beleaguered government early Monday moved to defuse its most serious political crisis yet by announcing that it would reinstate a top judge fired by its predecessor and release scores of opposition supporters arrested in recent days.
The televised announcement by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani came as thousands of protestors, accompanied by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, were planning to hold a sit-in in Islamabad to demand that Iftikhar Chaudhry be returned to his post as chief justice.
The decision set off celebrations outside Chaudhry’s residence, and Sharif later called off the protest.
Monday’s reversal came after several days of furious behind-the-scenes diplomacy, reportedly led by the U.S. and Britain. Political instability in Pakistan has been a major contributing factor to deteriorating security in the country’s northwest and in neighboring Afghanistan, where U.S., NATO and Afghan forces are battling the Taliban, and where four U.S. and two British soldiers were killed in separate bombings on Sunday.
The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad in a statement called the Pakistani decision “a substantial step towards national reconciliation.”
“Now is the time for all Pakistanis and their political representatives to work together, with the support of their friends and allies, to peacefully strengthen their democracy and ensure a positive dialogue,” it said.
The crisis was the latest development in a long-standing rivalry between Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the party led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto until her assassination in 2007 and since then by her widower, President Asif Ali Zardari.
Sharif, a two term prime minister in the 1990s, has linked up with the lawyer-led Chaudhry reinstatement campaign in his bid to challenge the PPP and Zardari.
His ambitions are widely recognized as going well beyond the reappointment of some independent-minded judges: since former military ruler Pervez Musharraf ousted him in a 1999 coup, Sharif has been agitating to return to power.
The two main forces standing in his way were removed when Bhutto was assassinated and when Musharraf stood down last August, a decision in part resulting from protests that first erupted when he removed the judges two years ago.
After coming second in legislative elections last year Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) briefly joined the first-placed PPP in a coalition government but withdrew over differences with Zardari over the reinstatement of Chaudhry and other deposed judges.
Sharif demanded that the judges be restored but Zardari demurred. His critics suspect that he resisted the calls because he himself faces unresolved accusations of corruption and money-laundering arising in the 1990s.
Sharif aims to challenge the PPP in elections in 2013, but the Supreme Court last month disqualified him and his brother, Shahbaz – chief minister of the politically influential Punjab province – from holding elected office because of previous criminal convictions.
Zardari responded to the court ruling by imposing executive rule over Punjab for two months. Sharif accused Zardari of being behind the court decision, which sparked angry protests by PML-N supporters.
The protests built in recent weeks, combining with the lawyer-led movement and heading for a climax Monday in Islamabad. Sharif on Sunday Monday defied an apparent effort to place him under house arrest in the city of Lahore and headed in a convoy for Islamabad.
Police had blocked off roads into the capital in a bid to prevent the protestors from driving into the city.
In his announcement Monday, Gilani said Chaudhry would be returned to his post on March 21. He also said the court ruling regarding the Sharif brothers would be reviewed.
Western governments are concerned that the political wrangling in Pakistan is diverting attention and resources away from the fight against terrorists who have strengthened their operations in Afghanistan while mounting deadly attacks in India and inside Pakistan itself.
On Sunday, four U.S. troops were killed by a roadside bomb in Nangarhar province, which lies between Kabul and the Pakistan border, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force reported. The British Ministry of Defense announced that two British soldiers were killed in an enemy explosion that targeted a vehicle patrol in southern Helmand province.
Also Sunday, militants attacked a terminal near the Pakistani city of Peshawar through which supplies are sent into Afghanistan for use by coalition forces. Previous attacks on NATO supply lines have prompted the U.S., which is planning to deploy thousands of additional troops, to explore alternative routes, especially via Central Asia.
Political instability in Pakistan in past years prompted the military to intervene on four occasions; more than half of its 61 years since independence have been under military rule.