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“Pakistan turmoil deepens as court orders PM’s arrest”

Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the arrest of the prime minister on Tuesday in connection with an alleged corruption scandal, ratcheting up pressure on a government locked in a showdown with a cleric who has a history of ties to the army.

The combination of the arrest order and a mass street protest in the capital Islamabad led by Muslim cleric Muhammad Tahirul Qadri raised fears among politicians that the military was working with the judiciary to force out a civilian leader.

“There is no doubt that Qadri’s march and the Supreme Court’s verdict were masterminded by the military establishment of Pakistan,” Fawad Chaudhry, an aide to Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, told Reuters.

“The military can intervene at this moment as the Supreme Court has opened a way for it.”

Thousands of followers of Qadri camped near the federal parliament cheered as television channels broadcast news of the Supreme Court’s order to arrest Ashraf on charges of corruption, who took over in June after judges disqualified his predecessor.

Pakistan’s powerful army has a long history of coups and intervening in politics. These days it seems to have little appetite for a coup but many believe it still tries to exert behind-the-scenes influence on politics.

The ruling coalition led by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party has weathered a series of crises with the judiciary and military over the last few years and hopes its parliamentary majority will help it survive until elections are called within a few months.

President Asif Ali Zardari hopes to lead the first civilian government that will complete its full term and hold elections. Any move to oust the prime minister would not automatically trigger the collapse of his coalition since lawmakers can simply elect another prime minister.

But power struggles distract the government from tackling an array of problems – a Taliban insurgency, economic stagnation and growing sectarian tensions triggered by bomb attacks and tit-for-tat shootings.

The Supreme Court gave authorities 24 hours to arrest Ashraf and 16 others in connection with an alleged corruption scandal involving power plants while he served as water and power minister.

Government officials said they were baffled by the arrest order, which came hours after Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry said elections should go ahead as scheduled.

“This was totally unexpected,” an official in Ashraf’s office told Reuters. “The prime minister and two or three of his friends were watching Qadri speak on television and this suddenly happened.”

Pakistan’s stock exchange fell by more than 500 points, or nearly three percent, on news of the court order, due to fears over fresh political turmoil, which comes against a backdrop of militant bombings and tension on the border with India.

Qadri, who played a role in backing a military coup in 1999, threatened to remain camped out near the federal parliament with thousands of supporters until his demands for the resignation of the government were met…

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