Pakistan's government capitulated Monday to opposition demands to restore judicial independence after the country's powerful Army and the United States refused to give President Asif Ali Zardari full and unqualified backing, Pakistani and US officials said.
A tumultuous week that began with protest marches and a harsh nationwide crackdown could have exploded into violence Monday, but instead the government publicly agreed at 6 a.m. to the demonstrators' key demand to reinstate Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, the former chief justice.
The announcement by Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani came hours before a massive throng of lawyers, opposition parties, and civil activists from around the country was due to descend on Islamabad for an indefinite sit-in until Mr. Chaudhry was restored.
"This is the first victory for the people in the history of Pakistan," said Hamid Khan, one of the leaders of the lawyers movement that campaigned tirelessly for Chaudhry. "This is the first time that the ruling elite had to bow to the pressure of the people."
US and Pakistani officials said that Pakistan's Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who'd met frequently with Mr. Zardari and Mr. Gilani in recent days, played a key role in defusing the confrontation. General Kayani called on Gilani late Sunday night, and both went to see Zardari at about midnight for a meeting that ended at 1 a.m.
US officials thought that there were two reasons for Zardari's capitulation.
The first was that Kayani warned Zardari that he wouldn't be able to count on the military to confront the demonstrators and prevent them from marching into central Islamabad.
"I don't think the military would fire on Pakistani demonstrators and political types," a senior US official said. A second US official said that the Obama administration, in contacts with Kayani, framed Pakistan's internal conflict as a constitutional issue, implying that it supported Chaudhry's reinstatement. The message, he said, was that "on issues of constitutional rights, it is . . . for Pakistan to decide."
The two officials requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the diplomacy.
Second, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made it clear in a telephone call to Zardari that he couldn't count on the unqualified support of the US, unlike his predecessor, retired Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who had the full backing of the Bush administration when he launched a similar crackdown on Chaudhry's supporters in 2007.
"The message to Zardari was that 'it's not "till death do us part." ' It put him on notice that he could not push this stuff. We have been pushing him since the beginning of this crisis to find a solution," the senior US official said. "And as he looked where he was going with this, he realized that he could not win."
"With the administration's blessing, Kayani played the key role in this, and he left Zardari with no choice except to give in to the protesters and Nawaz and reinstate Chaudhry," said a veteran US intelligence expert on South Asia, referring to opposition leader Nawaz Sharif.
Kayani has "been as nervous as a cat about this whole thing, but his concern is about tearing the Army apart. His political ambitions are limited to where he is now." The expert spoke anonymously because he wasn't authorized to speak on the record.