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Pakistan Parties OK Coalition Gov’t

November 5, 2002

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) _ Islamic parties that campaigned on an anti-American platform struck a deal Tuesday with a pro-democracy bloc to forge a coalition government and possibly pick a pro-Taliban cleric as Pakistan’s prime minister.

The choice of Fazl-ur Rahman, the leader of an Islamic party, should worry Washington because Pakistan is a key U.S. ally in the fight against Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida terrorist network. American troops have used the country as a base to fight the war on terrorism in neighboring Afghanistan.

But the fate of the new political alignment was uncertain because Pakistani politics can be fluid and partnerships can dissolve quickly. Another complication could be resistance from allies of President Pervez Musharraf, who said they will be the first to cobble together a ruling coalition.

Regardless of what kind of coalition is formed, Musharraf will likely remain the ultimate power in Pakistani politics. The president, who originally took over in a 1999 bloodless coup, can dissolve parliament and sack the prime minister whenever he sees fit. Musharraf won a referendum this year giving him five more years in power.

On Tuesday night, the religious and pro-democracy parties said they would formally announce their choice for prime minister on Wednesday, but officials in both camps have said the top spot would likely go to Rahman, head of Jamiat-e-ulema Islam, or Party of Islamic Clerics.

``We have complete unanimity of views on all basic issues,″ Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan, head of the Alliance, said in the federal capital, Islamabad.

The 15-party Alliance will form a coalition with a group of religious parties, called the United Action Forum, or Muthida Majlis-e-Amal. The group placed third in Oct. 10 elections, pledging to lead an Islamic revolution, kick out U.S. troops and rid the country of Western influence.

Although both groups said they would support the pro-Taliban cleric Rahman as prime minister, a spokesman for a group loyal to the president scoffed at the idea. The spokesman, Azeem Chaudhry, said pro-Musharraf candidate Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali would be the next prime minister. Jamali is a moderate.

Chaudhry said the pro-Musharraf parties have asked the president to postpone the start of the newly elected parliament, scheduled to convene Friday, for ``a few days″ so that parties would have more time to wrap up negotiations.

The pro-democracy bloc is dominated by the Pakistan People’s Party of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, whose support for the religious bloc contradicts her public statements made in the United States and Britain. Then she had strongly opposed these parties and warned of the dangers of hardline Islamists taking control of Pakistan.

Bhutto lives in self-imposed exile, dividing her time between Britain and the United Arab Emirates.

A spokesman for Bhutto’s party, Farhatullah Babar, said the groups would control 172 of the 342 seats in parliament.

The pro-democracy group would have 100 seats, while the United Action Forum religious coalition would control 67 seats, Babar said. Several smaller parties have agreed to support the coalition, pushing it past the 172-seat mark, he said.

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