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Pakistan Says It Will Review Ban On Opposition Leader


Pakistani lawyers march during a protest in Rawalpindi on March 13.
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- The Pakistani government has said it would seek a review of a Supreme Court ruling last month that barred opposition leader Nawaz Sharif and his brother from elected office and caused a political crisis.

Former Prime Minister Sharif was infuriated by the ruling and threw his support behind a protest campaign by lawyers that threatens to bring turmoil to Pakistan as the government struggles to stem militancy and to revive a flagging economy.

"The federal government will file a review petition in the Supreme Court against the verdict of the Supreme Court," a spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari said in a statement.

The decision appeared to be a first step toward reconciliation with Sharif but his party secretary-general, Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, dismissed it as "eyewash" aimed at diverting attention from the "long march" protest campaign.

"A review petition means nothing. The long march will continue," Jhagra told Reuters.

Police have detained hundreds of lawyers and opposition activists since a crackdown was launched on March 11 in a bid to stifle the lawyers' plans for a crosscountry protest.

Nevertheless, black-suited lawyers and flag-waving opposition party activists launched their campaign in the south of the country on March 12, aiming to head to Islamabad.

But authorities have effectively broken up the procession with the detentions, bans on rallies, and road blocks, although protest leaders say they are determined to hold a sit-in outside parliament in Islamabad on March 16.

A looming showdown has raised fears of bloodshed on the streets.

Pakistan's efforts to eliminate Taliban and Al-Qaeda enclaves on the Afghan border are vital to U.S. plans to stabilize Afghanistan and defeat Al-Qaeda.

If the crisis gets out of hand, the army could feel compelled to intervene, though most analysts say a military takeover is highly unlikely.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Zardari to convey U.S. support for Pakistan's democracy and its economy, Zardari's office said earlier.

On the "prevailing situation," she said "the U.S. was keen to see a stable and democratic system strengthened," it said.

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The Supreme Court ruling, based on old convictions the Sharifs say were politically motivated, nullified a by-election victory by Sharif's brother, Shahbaz, and disqualified him from holding the office of chief minister of Punjab, the most populous and most influential of Pakistan's four provinces.

Zardari then imposed central rule in Punjab for two months, and threw out the provincial government of the Sharifs' party.

The Sharifs said Zardari was behind the court decision.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has been promoting a compromise package with concessions to Sharif and the judiciary.

But earlier on March 14, hopes for a compromise faded when a senior official said Zardari was refusing to cave in to pressure unless Sharif abandoned his support for the long march.

"The News" newspaper said Zardari had rejected a compromise package backed by the United States and Britain.

The protesters' main demand is the reinstatement of former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was dismissed in 2007 by the then-President and Army Chief Pervez Musharraf.

Zardari has refused to reinstate the judge, seeing him as a threat to his own position.

On March 14, police detained activists trying protest in the city of Multan while lawyers rallied at their bar association.

Interior Ministry chief Rehman Malik urged the protesters not to march on parliament. Security agencies had information "enemies of Pakistan" would launch suicide bomb attacks on the protest, he told reporters.

Meanwhile, at least one television station known for its opposition to Zardari said authorities had interfered with its broadcasts through cable operators, and newspapers reported that Information Minister Sherry Rehman had resigned in response.

The prime minster's office said Rehman had tendered her resignation. Rehman declined to coment.