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Pakistani Government Withdraws Orders On Judges

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) -- Pakistan's government averted a potentially destabilizing dispute with the judiciary today, withdrawing orders from the president appointing two judges that the Supreme Court had opposed.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said the decision to withdraw the order, which Zardari issued on February 13 and the Supreme Court blocked hours later, had dispelled political tension.

Pakistan has a history of disputes between the executive and the judiciary sparking political turmoil.

Gilani, speaking to reporters after meeting Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, said the withdrawal of the orders and their replacement with new ones would boost stability.

"This is in the best interests of Pakistan...and all the political forces in the country and that would strengthen and stabilize the system," Gilani said.

"It is completely over," Gilani said when asked about the political tension.

The row looked set to become a distraction for the government of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally which is already struggling to fight Islamist militants and to get a sluggish economy on track.

The Supreme Court said on the weekend that Zardari's orders were apparently a violation of the constitution, as the president had not consulted the Supreme Court chief on the appointments.

Black-suited lawyers took to the streets in major cities across the country on February 15, protesting against the unpopular Zardari, husband of asassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Pakistani stocks fell early this week as investors worried about instability.

The United States, struggling to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan, would have been dismayed to see the controversy distracting the government from battling militants on its Afghan border.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, who has been largely supportive of the government, denounced the president on February 14 as "the biggest threat to democracy."

Zardari can ill afford to antagonize the judiciary.

The row came two months after the Supreme Court threw out an amnesty that had protected Zardari, several top aides and thousands of political activists and civil servants, mostly from corruption charges.

Though he is protected by his presidential immunity, he is vulnerable to legal challenges to his 2008 election as president on the grounds that old corruption charges against him made him ineligible.