Pak cleric to halt protests

Islamabad, Jan. 17 (Reuters): A Muslim cleric calling for the Pakistani government to resign today said that he had reached an agreement with the administration and would call a halt to the street protests in Islamabad that triggered a political crisis four days ago.

Muhammad Tahir-ul- Qadri, who supported a 1999 military coup, has been calling on the military to play a role in the formation of a caretaker administration in the run-up to elections due in May.

"We have reached an agreement. After getting the Prime Minister's signature, we will read it in out front of protesters," Qadri told his supporters. It is not yet clear what concessions he may have secured in talks with a delegation from the coalition government hours before his announcement of an agreement.

But the deal may ease pressure on the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), which has come under fire for failing to tackle a range of problems, from a Taliban insurgency to a weak economy.

Pakistan's government also got some relief when the chief of the state's anti-corruption agency rejected a Supreme Court order to arrest Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.

The court ordered Ashraf's arrest over allegations of corruption in transactions involving power plant rentals when he was power minister. Fasih Bokhari of the National Accountability Bureau told the court that investigations of the allegations were incomplete.

The court asked Bokhari to produce case records so that it could decide whether there was enough evidence to prosecute. The case was adjourned until January 23, judges said.

Qadri's appearance at the forefront of Pakistan's political scene has fuelled speculation that the army, with its long history of involvement in politics, has tacitly endorsed his campaign in order to pile more pressure on a government it sees as inept and corrupt. The military denies this.

The cleric, who has been delivering long, fiery speeches from behind a bullet-proof glass box, has many followers who back his religious charity, which has offices in 80 countries. But he also appeals to middle- and lower-class Pakistanis.

No civilian government has ever completed its full term, but current army chief Gen. Ashfaq Kayani has vowed to keep the military out of politics. Fresh troubles may be brewing on another front for the government, which has been heavily criticised for its failure to strengthen the economy, fight militancy and eradicate poverty.

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