NYT : Sharif Threatens to Pull Out of Pakistani Coalition

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sharif Threatens to Pull Out of Pakistani Coalition

By JANE PERLEZ | August 19, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A day after their unified effort ousted President Pervez Musharraf, the two major parties in the governing coalition fell into disarray on Tuesday when they failed to agree on the restoration of the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The instant deterioration in relations became evident when Nawaz Sharif, the leader of one of the parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, walked out of a meeting here and headed back to his home in Lahore, a four-hour drive away.

Party members said Mr. Sharif had delivered an ultimatum to the senior coalition party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by Asif Ali Zardari, to consent to the return of the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, within 72 hours, or the Mr. Sharif’s party would leave the government. Mr. Chaudhry was among some 60 judges suspended by Mr. Musharraf last year.

Even by the standards of Pakistan’s hard-boiled and volatile political scene, the public discord between the political leaders was surprising, politicians said, a sign that opposition to Mr. Musharraf may have been the strongest thread tying them together.

The departure of Mr. Sharif’s party would greatly weaken the government but would not necessarily mean there would be new elections. Still, the situation did not bode well for future stability, with Pakistan facing a sharply declining economy and an emboldened Taliban insurgency that is fast moving past its sanctuaries in the tribal region and reaching into other parts of the country.

In an attack claimed by the Taliban within the tribal region on Tuesday, a suicide bomber ripped into the emergency room of the district hospital in Dera Ismail Khan, a town near Waziristan, killing 25 people and injuring 30, said the inspector general of the police in the North-West Frontier Province, Malik Naveed Khan. He said there was some evidence that the suicide bomber was linked to Waziristan, the base of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud.

The rupture in the coalition appeared serious, perhaps fatal, said Arif Nizami, the editor of the daily newspaper, The Nation, and friend of the Mr. Sharif’s family.

Mr. Sharif was “unlikely to cave,” Mr. Nizami said.

Mr. Zardari and Mr. Sharif have sharply disagreed over Mr. Chaudhry’s reinstatement ever since they became coalition partners.

Mr. Sharif based his election campaign earlier this year on the reinstatement of some 60 judges fired by Mr. Musharraf, including the independently minded Mr. Chaudhry. A poll in June by the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based group, showed that 83 percent of Pakistanis wanted the Supreme Court justices reinstated.

But Mr. Zardari has made it clear that he does not want Mr. Chaudhry back on the bench. He prefers the chief justice installed by Mr. Musharraf after he imposed emergency rule last November, Abdul Hamid Dogar, according to lawyers familiar with Mr. Zardari’s thinking.

The lawyers’ movement that has grew around Mr. Chaudhry as the ultimate anti-Musharraf symbol in Pakistan regards Mr. Dogar as an illegal appointee.

Mr. Dogar comes from Sindh Province, Mr. Zardari’s political base, and the two men are friendly.

The basis of Mr. Zardari’s opposition to Mr. Chaudhry rests with a fear that he might undo an amnesty agreement that absolved Mr. Zardari of corruption charges, lawyers said. The amnesty, which applies to bureaucrats and politicians who faced corruption charges, was part of a package arranged by Mr. Musharraf when Mr. Zardari returned to Pakistan after his wife, the former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated late last year.

Members of the Pakistan Muslim League-N said Mr. Zardari, in failing to agree to the reinstatement of Mr. Chaudhry, was breaking a written accord made with Mr. Sharif 10 days ago.

The attack in Dera Ismail Khan as part of continuing sectarian strife between Sunni and Shiites, according to Mr. Khan, the police chief. A Shiite man was killed in the town Tuesday, and as a group of Shiites approached the gates of the emergency room with the body of the dead man, the suicide bomber blew himself up, he said.

Many of the 23 dead were Shiites, Mr. Khan said. Two police officers were also killed, he said.

In another unexpected move after Mr. Musharraf’s resignation, the chief of staff of the Pakistani Army, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, made a surprise visit to the Afghan capital, Kabul, on Tuesday.

The spokesman for the Afghan military, Gen. Zaher Azimi, said General Kayani attended a meeting of the tripartite commission, a body composed of the military leaders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the United States coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan. General Kayani’s presence was notable, not only because of its timing so quickly after Mr. Musharraf’s departure, but because it was believed to be the first time the Pakistani general had attended a meeting of the commission in Kabul since assuming command of the Pakistani military last November.

Relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan have been particularly tense in the last few months after the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, repeatedly accused Pakistan of helping Taliban fighters cross the border into Afghanistan in order to attack Afghan and NATO troops. The Bush administration has also publicly reprimanded the Pakistanis for their support of the Taliban.

Last month, American officials confronted General Kayani with evidence they said showed that Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, had planned the suicide bomb attack against the Indian Embassy in Kabul in early July. General Kayani is the former head of the agency.

There was speculation that General Kayani may have attended the talks in Kabul in response to the stepped American pressure.

Salman Masood contributed reporting from Islamabad, Mark Mazzetti from Washington, and David E. Sanger from Vermont.