Opposition to Pakistani President Grows
By STEPHEN GRAHAM 05.14.07, 4:26 PM ET
Opposition to Pakistan's U.S.-allied president intensified Monday after weekend violence killed 41 in the nation's business capital, with a strike closing shops across the country and lawmakers denouncing Gen. Pervez Musharraf as "killer Musharraf."
The unrest dramatically raised the stakes for Musharraf, whose attempts to extend his nearly eight-year rule are being threatened by his suspension two months ago of the independent-minded Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry.
Opposition parties and many ordinary citizens blamed Musharraf and his political allies for the bloodshed in Karachi on Saturday, when rival political groups staging rallies over a visit by the judge to the volatile city clashed in the streets. Security forces failed to intervene.
Gunmen, meanwhile, killed a senior administrator for the Supreme Court, Syed Hamid Raza, at his home in Islamabad before dawn. Police said they believed robbers responsible, and the state news agency quoted the victim's father as saying the same. A cousin, however, called it a targeted killing because nothing was stolen, but offered no evidence to support his assertion.
The opposition strike call was observed in most of Pakistan's major cities, including Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta, but particularly Karachi. The city of 15 million people was paralyzed, with shops closed and traffic thin - but also because local officials banned public gatherings and authorized security forces to shoot rioters on sight.
"What happened in Karachi was shameful for the government," said Aslam Khan, a general store owner in Peshawar who supported the strike.
In Lahore, about 8,000 people, including lawyers, opposition party members and human rights activists, burned two effigies of Musharraf. They also chanted "Death to Altaf Hussain," referring to a leader of the pro-government Mutahida Qaumi Movement, which was heavily implicated in the Karachi violence.
In the National Assembly, more than 100 opposition lawmakers protested the violence by shouting "Killer, killer general, killer!" and "Killer, killer Musharraf, killer!"
The bloodshed marked a sudden escalation in a crisis that began March 9 when Musharraf suspended Chaudhry for alleged abuse of office - a move critics suspect was designed to head off legal challenges to the general's plan to ask lawmakers for another five-year term this fall. The government denied the move was politically motivated.
Commentators said the strike was the clearest indication yet that the opposition could mobilize ordinary Pakistanis - not just their own party activists - for an end to military rule.
"It's been two months that the judicial crisis has been going on and the opposition parties never managed to bring the country to a halt," said Ayaz Amir, a political analyst and former lawmaker. "That is happening today and it is because of Saturday's events and how this government went about it."
The bloodshed may also have spoiled tentative Musharraf plans to seek a rapprochement with exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and produce a broad-based, pro-Western government able to confront rising Islamic extremism.
"It seems that the window of opportunity for making a deal with such liberal forces has snapped shut with the Karachi massacre," The Daily Times said in an editorial.
Over the weekend, Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto's Peoples Party, accused Musharraf of deliberately plotting the violence.
On Monday, he told The Associated Press that a link-up between Bhutto and Musharraf was "really hypothetical" and insisted Musharraf must not only give up his uniform but also seek election from new assemblies to be selected at the end of the year - conditions he has rejected.
Amir said Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup and has presided over an economic upturn, missed an opportunity to stay on as a civilian president managing the restoration of democracy. He said Musharraf risked repeating the experience of Ayub Khan, Pakistan's first military ruler who was forced to quit in 1969 by mounting opposition.
The analyst pointed to weekend pro-government rallies that drew only about one-tenth of the 500,000 people predicted by the ruling party.
"All his calculations have proved wrong," Amir said, noting that the government had expected its weekend rallies to put the opposition on the defensive. "The effect we are seeing is exactly the opposite."
Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
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