World and Nation

U.S. Tries to Ease Tensions in Pakistan

In an effort to defuse the Pakistani political crisis, the U.S. ambassador, Anne W. Patterson, traveled to see the opposition leader Nawaz Sharif on Thursday morning and urged him to reconcile with Pakistan’s president, Sharif said.

Later on Thursday, the Obama administration’s special envoy to Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, spoke by video conference call to Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, Zardari’s office announced.

The involvement of two senior U.S. officials prompted speculation here that the United States was trying to broker a deal that would ease the standoff between the rivals and end the potential for violence as a coalition of opposition and citizens’ groups prepared for a march that Zardari’s government had banned.

The Obama administration apparently fears that the rising tensions between the politicians could further derail Pakistan’s efforts to quell a growing insurgency by al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Sharif, who plans to appear at anti-government rallies this weekend, said he told the envoy that the ball was in Zardari’s court. “We went out of our way to show patience, tolerance, despite the broken promises of Mr. Zardari,” Sharif said. “All of a sudden, they struck, they delivered a very heavy blow; it was like you stab someone in the back.”

Sharif made several demands of Zardari: Remove the federal rule imposed on his home base of Punjab province in late February; rescind the judicial ruling that denied Sharif and his brother the right to stand for elections; and restore an independent judiciary.

The government has said it acted to restore law and order and subdue Sharif, whom it accused of trying to foment revolution and court Islamists to buttress his power. Sharif’s supporters accuse the government of suppressing dissent.

On Wednesday night, Holbrooke spoke by telephone to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, who has distanced himself from Zardari, and said that federal rule of the provincial assembly in Punjab should end quickly.

The government crackdown against protesters continued Thursday as hundreds of police in riot gear used batons against lawyers and protesters outside the high court in Karachi. More than a dozen lawyers were arrested, including a leader of the movement, Munir Malik, who was imprisoned during the military rule of General Pervez Musharraf, and a leader of Jamat-e-Islami, a right wing Islamic party that supports the lawyers.

Later, police in Karachi took the keys of the buses and vans lined up at a toll plaza for a long march that is planned to wind its way from different directions in Pakistan and converge on Islamabad on Monday. Lawyers dressed in black suits and white shirts scuffled with police at the toll, and several were dragged into police vans.

The government led by Zardari imposed a law in the two most populous provinces, Sindh and Punjab, which prohibits the gathering of more than four people.

Police have arrested hundreds of political workers of Sharif’s party, and are holding them in jail, apparently until the march is over.