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Zardari moves to end Pakistan political crisis

Workers of Farhad transport terminal examine a burnt room after rockets attack by militants on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, Saturday, March 28, 2009. Dozens of suspected militants fired rockets early Saturday at a transport terminal in northwest Pakistan that is used to ship supplies to NATO troops based in Afghanistan, police said. Workers of Farhad transport terminal examine a burnt room after rockets attack by militants on the outskirts of Peshawar, Pakistan, Saturday, March 28, 2009. Dozens of suspected militants fired rockets early Saturday at a transport terminal in northwest Pakistan that is used to ship supplies to NATO troops based in Afghanistan, police said. (AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)
By Stephen Graham
Associated Press Writer / March 28, 2009
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ISLAMABAD—Pakistan's president moved Saturday to end a political crisis threatening to hobble the government's efforts against Islamist militants by vowing to help the main opposition party return to power in a key province.

In a reminder of the dangers facing the nuclear-armed country, militants rocketed a transportation depot used to ship supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan and the army said troops killed 26 militants near the border.

Persuading Pakistani authorities to focus on eliminating militant havens in its un-policed frontier region is a critical element in the new U.S. strategy for the region.

Pakistan plunged into political turmoil in January that has damaged the standing of President Asif Ali Zardari, a key player in any intensified push against al-Qaida and Taliban militants.

The crisis began when the Supreme Court disqualified opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister widely considered Pakistan's most popular politician, as well as his brother Shahbaz Sharif from elected office.

Zardari promptly ousted the government in Punjab province, Pakistan's biggest and wealthiest, which had been led by Shahbaz Sharif, prompting a power struggle that Zardari's party appears to have lost.

After weeks of maneuvering over who would lead the new provincial administration, Zardari said Saturday that his party would back the Sharifs' pick.

"Pakistan has many challenges. What it does not need is a challenge from within its democracy," Zardari said in an address to Parliament. He said his party "will not let down the government in Punjab."

The government has appealed the court rulings against the brothers, raising the prospect that Shahbaz Sharif could return to office. It was not clear when the court would reach a decision or when provincial lawmakers would meet to elect a new chief minister.

"It was a situation they had created," said Zulfikar Khosa, a lawmaker for Sharif's party. "Now they have realized that it should be ended and that is very good."

Zardari also called for a parliamentary committee to finalize proposed constitutional amendments that would strip him of some of the powers accumulated by his predecessor, former military ruler and close U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf.

The climb-down over Punjab was a second major victory for Nawaz Sharif since the crisis broke.

The former prime minister put Zardari on the defensive in January by throwing his weight behind plans by activist lawyers to agitate for an independent judiciary by besieging the federal Parliament in Islamabad.

Under pressure from Washington and the powerful Pakistan army to head off a potentially violent showdown, Zardari caved in to demands to reinstate the independent-minded Supreme Court chief justice ousted by his predecessor, former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari's reluctance to restore the judge fueled accusations that he was worried about the legality of a pact enacted by Musharraf that quashed corruption cases against him and his late wife, slain former leader Benazir Bhutto.

Zardari's concessions appear to have headed off the threat of early elections in Pakistan, frustrating at least for now Sharif's hopes of returning to power in the center.

Sharif, a more conservative but still broadly pro-Western politician, also needs help from the ruling party to change the constitution so that he can serve a possible third term as prime minister.

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