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Political Storm Looms In Pakistan After Deadly Attack On Military Site

People pray for victims of the August 21 suicide attacks near Islamabad
The political alliance in Pakistan that pressured President Pervez Musharraf to resign earlier this week is now facing a crisis of its own.

The two main parties, led by Asif Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, were bitter political rivals before Musharraf seized power in a 1999 military coup. But they put their differences aside during the past five months to force Musharraf to quit.

Now, with Musharraf removed from the picture, their differences are surfacing once again. And many observers in Islamabad think their alliance will unravel -- with potentially far-reaching consequences for the country and region.

Sharif says his party -- Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) -- will leave the governing coalition unless an agreement is reached to restore Supreme Court judges who were sacked by Musharraf last year to avoid challenges to his rule.

Conciliatory Efforts

He said on August 22 that a resolution on the issue should be tabled in parliament on August 25 and that, after two days of debate, the resolution should be passed by August 27.

The conciliatory efforts have at least temporarily saved the governing coalition from disintegration. Earlier, Sharif's party had threatened to pull out of the alliance if the judges were not reinstated by August 22.

Sharif, bitter over this 1999 ouster and exile by Musharraf, sees the judges as potential allies in his campaign to charge Musharraf with treason.

Zardari's Pakistan People's Party, which leads the coalition, has hesitated on the issue. Zardari, widower of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has said that legal action against Musharraf would be a destabilizing move. And like Musharraf, Zardari has accused former Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry of being too political.

Since Musharraf's resignation on August 18, the PPP has been trying to line up smaller parties as possible allies in an attempt to retain control of parliament if Sharif and his supporters leave the coalition.

The two sides also disagree on who should succeed Musharraf as president and whether Musharraf should face trial.

Legislators agreed on August 22 that they will conduct an electoral college vote on September 6 to determine who will be the next president. The electoral college is comprised of lawmakers from both chambers of Pakistan's federal parliament and from the country's four provincial assemblies.

The in-fighting of the coalition has raised concerns about the ability of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani's government to deal with critical economic and security issues.

Militant Violence

Since July 2007, Pakistan has suffered a wave of militant violence that has killed hundreds of people -- including many members of Pakistan's security forces.

The violence subsided when Gilani's government came to power after elections in February and opened talks with militants in Pakistan's tribal regions. But the violence began again after militant leader Baitullah Mehsud suspended the talks in June.

Now, although Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism was deeply unpopular in Pakistan, Gilani's government has vowed to keep fighting the militants.

During the past two weeks, Pakistani security forces have been fighting fierce battles with pro-Taliban militants in the tribal agency of Bajaur where Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and local Islamic militants are thought to be sheltering.

The government says more than 500 militants and 30 soldiers have been killed in that fighting. But local authorities say an estimated 250,000 residents have been displaced by the fighting -- causing a new set of social and economic problems in the region.

Pro-Taliban militants have responded with a series of their own attacks -- including the bombing of a military bus in Peshawar last week that killed 13, a suicide bombing on August 19 at a hospital in the northwestern town of Dera Ismail Khan that killed 30, and a double suicide bombing at the gates of the main army munitions factory August 21 that killed at least 67 people.

Thursday's attack at the Pakistan Ordnance Factory in Wah -- about 35 kilometers west of Islamabad -- was the deadliest attack by militants ever on a Pakistani military installation.

'Firm Steps'

In the aftermath of that attack, Chief Minister of Punjab Province Shahbaz Sharif told journalists that efforts are planned to tighten security further.

"The government of Pakistan and the entire nation are going to take firm and effective steps to put an end to these terrorist activities," he said.

But journalists in Islamabad say the attack on the munitions plant has added more turmoil to political squabbling within the governing coalition that has intensified since Musharraf resigned.

Some analysts warn that if the political infighting continues to distract the coalition from addressing Pakistan’s economic and security threats, the country could even be pushed to the brink of civil war.

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