Pakistani officials struck a deal late Thursday with a fiery Muslim cleric to end four days of anti-government protests by thousands of his supporters that largely paralyzed the capital and put intense pressure on the government.
The demonstration came at a time when the government is facing challenges on several fronts, including from the country's top court. The Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the prime minister earlier in the week in connection with a corruption case, but the government's anti-corruption chief refused to act on Thursday, citing a lack of evidence.
Tahir-ul-Qadri, the 61-year-old cleric who led the protests in Islamabad, galvanized many Pakistanis with his message alleging that the nation's politicians are corrupt thieves who care more about lining their pockets than dealing with the country's pressing problems, such as electricity shortages, high unemployment and deadly attacks by Islamic militants. He demanded electoral reform to prevent corrupt politicians from standing for elections.
But his demand that the government be dissolved and replaced by a military-backed caretaker administration raised concerns that he was being used by the nation's powerful army to try to delay parliamentary elections expected this spring. Qadri has denied any connection to the army, which has a history of toppling civilian governments in military coups and has done little to hide its disdain for the country's politicians.
Qadri returned late last year from Canada and became a significant political force almost overnight, leveraging support from a large cadre of religious followers in Pakistan and abroad. Tens of thousands of people responded to his call to hold a protest in Islamabad and camped out in the main avenue running through the city, huddling beneath blankets at night to ward off the cold.
But Qadri was left politically isolated Wednesday when a large group of opposition parties collectively announced that they would not support the protest and opposed any movement that threatened democracy. Their response and suggestions by the country's interior minister that the government would use force to disperse the protesters might have factored into the cleric's decision to strike a deal, which appeared to fall short of his demands. The protesters also were being drenched by heavy rain.
The government agreed to meet with Qadri after he announced that Thursday would be the last day of the protest while warning that he would let the protesters decide how to respond if the government failed to meet his demands by the afternoon.
The agreement was reached after hours of negotiation inside a bulletproof container the religious leader was using at the demonstration site. The bizarre scene was broadcast on TV as cameras filmed the group's meeting through the container's window. Thousands of protesters danced and cheered when Qadri announced that he and the government had hammered out a deal and they could now end their protest.
"God has granted you victory, and this is a day of victory for Pakistan," Qadri told the crowd, as they energetically waved green and white Pakistani flags.
The government agreed to dissolve the National Assembly before its term ends on March 16, leaving time to make sure politicians are eligible to stand for elections under the constitution, according to a copy of the agreement. The government also agreed that the caretaker administration, which normally precedes elections, would be chosen in consultation with Qadri's party, but there was no mention of a role for the military or the judiciary as the cleric demanded.
The cleric also demanded the dissolution of the body that oversees elections in Pakistan, claiming it was biased because it was appointed by political leaders. The government agreed to discuss the composition of the Election Commission but made no promises about changing its membership.
Nevertheless, Qadri's supporters were overjoyed with the agreement.
"I am happy that we achieved our goal, and God willing, we will have honest leadership after the next elections," said one of the protesters, 22-year-old Ghazala Shaheen.
The resolution of the standoff with Qadri comes as a relief to the government as it faces a renewed round of conflict with the Supreme Court.
Fasih Bokhari, head of the government's anti-corruption unit, the National Accountability Bureau, told the Supreme Court on Thursday that the initial investigation into corruption allegations against Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz was flawed. He said he needed more time to determine whether the premier should be arrested.
The case involves kickbacks that Ashraf allegedly took when he was minister of water and power. They were related to projects to build private power stations to provide electricity to energy-starved Pakistan. The prime minister has denied the allegations.
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry questioned why the anti-corruption chief needed more time since the case against the prime minister has been pending for about a year. He grilled Bokhari, who was appointed by the president, and eventually demanded that he deliver a detailed report on the case when the hearing resumes on Jan. 23.
"There may be some who consider themselves above the law, but let me make it clear there is no one above the law," Chaudhry said.
The Supreme Court has clashed repeatedly with the government during the past year, especially over an old corruption case against Pakistan's president in Swiss court. Pakistan's Supreme Court convicted Ashraf's predecessor, Yousuf Raza Gilani, of contempt of court for refusing to reopen the case and ousted him from office.
Also Thursday, gunmen riding a motorcycle in the southern city of Karachi killed a provincial lawmaker from the city's most powerful party, the Muttahida Quami Movement, and one of his police guards, said police spokesman Imran Shaukat. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ahsanullah Ahsan claimed responsibility for the shooting by telephone to The Associated Press.
Associated Press writers Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, and Adil Jawad in Karachi, Pakistan, contributed to this report.