ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistan's embattled government announced key concessions to opposition demands Saturday, on the eve of a mass protest in Islamabad that had raised fears of bloody clashes in the streets.
The move to defuse tensions came as the army was put on standby, to be deployed in case of serious civil unrest, and the capital Islamabad was sealed ahead of the planned arrival of the protesters from across the country on Monday. The opposition is campaigning for an independent judiciary.
The pro-western government led by President Asif Ali Zardari softened its stance under intense U.S. and British pressure, with the compromise offer coming just hours after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Pakistani president and opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
Clinton told Zardari that "the U.S. was keen to see a stable and democratic system strengthened in the country", according to the Pakistani president's office. Clinton had "urged a settlement through negotiations", said Sharif's spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed.
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U.S. special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, and the American ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, have been involved in detailed talks with the Pakistani government and opposition in recent days.
Western leaders fear that nuclear-armed Pakistan, key to the global fight against Islamic extremism, is heading for a political meltdown, which would take the country's focus away from the anti-terror struggle and could see the military step back into politics. Pakistan, which was ruled for years by a military dictator, is considered the headquarters of al Qaida and a safe haven for the Taliban fighting international forces in neighboring Afghanistan.
In its concessions, Islamabad offered to challenge a legal prohibition on Sharif's and his brother's standing for parliament and to reinstate conditionally the judges removed in 2007 by then military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
But the concessions looked like they were too little, too late.
A coalition of opposition parties and Pakistan's fiery lawyers' movement started a "long march" this week from all corners of Pakistan towards the capital, which has been met with a harsh crackdown from a government that had seemed to panic.
The compromise offered did not satisfy either the lawyers or Sharif, with both saying the march would go on. The protesters also had called for the unconditional reinstatement of the former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry. In power for a year now, Zardari's government has refused to bring Chaudhry back, despite two previous written commitments to do so, and the deal presented Saturday made no specific mention of the ex-chief justice.
"Nothing can stop this flood of people reaching its destination," Sharif told supporters gathered at his home in the eastern city of Lahore.
A showdown is expected in Lahore on Sunday, when Sharif and the lawyers will attempt to set off on the last leg of the protest march to Islamabad. Lahore is the centre of the pro-judiciary movement.
The government has responded to the "march" — actually a huge convoy of vehicles — by blocking roads across the country, restricting domestic air travel and arresting hundreds of activists. The tactics — reminiscent of Pakistan's past military regimes — have so far been successful in stopping protesters leaving their home cities, with police baton-charging them and blockading roads.
The protesters' original plan was to end their five-day march with an indefinite sit-in once they reach Islamabad on Monday, until the ex-chief justice is reinstated. It is unclear how many will actually make it to the capital and what sort of force might be used against them there.
Zardari, head of the Pakistan Peoples Party, sees the pro-judiciary movement as an attempt by Sharif to bring the government down. The president told colleagues Saturday that they should "beware of the conspiracy against the party and to educate the people about the machinations of the opponents to discredit the party", according to a statement from Zardari's office.
Rehman Malik, the interior ministry chief, warned that troops were being pulled out from frontline positions against the militants in the northwest, close to the Afghan border, in order to provide security for the capital.
"Unfortunately this is not favorable for the war we are fighting against the criminals, the militants, the terrorists," Malik said.
A spokesman for the army, Major General Athar Abbas, said that soldiers would only be deployed if the situation "gets out of hand".
The government's draconian clampdown includes restricting fuel supplies and prohibiting transporters from renting buses to the protesters, in an attempt to foil their travel plans. There are long lines of cars and trucks across the country at provincial borders, with many people not involved in the demonstration caught up in the closure of roads.
Islamabad has even taken off air the most critical television channel, Geo News, in parts of the country — a move that led over the weekend to the resignation of the information minister and key Zardari aide Sherry Rehman. The departure of Rehman, and other senior minister, Raza Rabbani, a few days earlier, appears to have shaken the Zardari government.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.
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