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Thousands rally in Pakistan capital against government

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Thousands of Pakistanis fed up with political leaders they say are corrupt and indifferent rallied in the Pakistani capital Tuesday, as the cleric who organized the rally called for the government to resign.

The dramatic entry into Pakistani politics of Tahir-ul-Qadri, a preacher who until recently lived in Canada, has sparked concern from some that he is seeking to derail elections at the behest of the powerful army.

Polls are expected this spring.

Qadri has denied that and insisted his vague demands for election reform are simply meant to root out corruption in the political system. He pledged several weeks ago to lead a “million-man march” on Islamabad on Monday to press his demands.

Early in the morning after Qadri finished his speech railing against the government, some of the marchers pushed aside the shipping containers that had been placed on the street to block their access to the city centre and government buildings in a protected enclave.

Some of the marchers then walked toward the enclave where another row of shipping containers and a heavy police presence protected the government buildings. There were no clashes with security authorities, and the marchers appeared to stop there.

During a 40-minute speech in the early morning hours, Qadri told his supporters that the government’s mandate was finished.

“Tonight your mandate is finished ... I give you time until tomorrow to dissolve national and all four provincial assemblies otherwise the nation will dissolve them on their own,” he said, speaking behind bulletproof glass.

Qadri also asked his supporters to take the security of the capital in their hand and guard and protect each of the buildings of Islamabad. The cleric took an oath in front of the crowd that they all will remain peaceful but stay in Islamabad until the revolution is completed.

“They are no more rulers but former rulers. Don’t follow their orders! I have come here to get you out of their slavery,” he said.

Many in the crowd waved green and white Pakistani flags and wore buttons emblazoned with the cleric’s picture.

Security was heavy throughout the city. In addition to the shipping containers blocking the crowds, thousands of paramilitary forces and police in riot gear were deployed and cellphones were jammed after the government warned that militants were planning to attack the protesters.

Qadri left his home base in the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday accompanied by at least 15,000 people in hundreds of vehicles, and the procession was expected to grow as it approached Islamabad. It was unclear exactly how big the crowd was when the cleric finally arrived in Islamabad at about 2 a.m. Tuesday.

Qadri returned to Pakistan in December after years in Canada, where he’s also a citizen. He heads a religious network in Lahore and gained some international prominence by writing a 2010 fatwa, or religious opinion, condemning terrorism.

But he was never a national political figure until this winter, when his calls for reforms ahead of elections galvanized many Pakistanis disenchanted by the existing parties. The cleric’s vaguely worded demands include vetting of political candidates to make sure they’re honest and taking steps to even out the playing field so more people can participate in the political process.

 
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