ISLAMABAD — Pakistan agreed Monday to reinstate a fired Supreme Court chief justice, a move that will help defuse a political crisis that has sparked street battles and raised fears of instability in the U.S.-allied country at a time of surging Islamist violence.
Opposition leaders and lawyers had vowed to sit-in at the parliament later Monday until Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, known for his independence and willingness to challenge authority, was reinstated. The capital has been barricaded and scores of extra police brought in amid fears of violence.
In a dawn address to the nation that capped a night of high drama, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced Chaudhry would be sworn back in on March 21, the day the current chief justice was due to retire. The speech triggered scenes of jubilation outside Chaudhry's home in the capital, Islamabad.
Gilani also ordered all lawyers and political activists arrested over the past week to be freed immediately and appealed for political reconciliation in the nuclear-armed country, which is facing a punishing economic crisis as well as rising al-Qaida and Taliban violence.
The concession came as thousands of protesters led by Nawaz Sharif, the head of the largest opposition party and a longtime foe of President Asif Ali Zardari, were traveling to Islamabad to join the planned sit-in. Sharif joined the convoy after ignoring a house arrest order in his hometown of Lahore in Punjab, where his supporters fought running battles with police.
Supporters in Gujranwala mobbed Sharif's rose-petal covered car following Gilani's announcement. Sharif called off the so-called Long March to the capital, and thanked Zardari, Gilani and the Pakistani people.
"From here, God willing, the fate of this nation will change," Sharif said using a microphone from inside his jeep before heading back to Lahore. "From here, a journey of development will start. From here, a revolution will come."
Former President Pervez Musharraf fired Chaudhry, 60, in 2007 after he took up cases challenging the leader's rule, sparking a wave of protests that helped force Musharraf from power in 2008.
Musharraf's successor, Zardari, pledged to reinstate Chaudhry within 30 days of his party forming a government, but reneged on the promise, apparently fearing the justice might examine a deal that he and his wife, slain politician Benazir Bhutto, struck with Musharraf to grant the pair immunity from prosecution over alleged corruption cases.
Zardari's broken promise and his government's repression of the protesters will likely leave him in a politically weakened position. Sharif has projected an image of strength and stands to gain from leading a successful movement against the president, who has been the focus of popular anger.
Lawyers and civil rights activists have remained committed to the cause of Chaudhry's reinstatement, believing it was a vital first step in getting an independent judiciary in Pakistan. The court system has often been abused by past rulers to cement their grip on power.
"This is a victory for the people of this country," lawyer leader Baz Mohammad Kakar said after Gilani's announcement. "Chaudhry is the first chief justice in the history of Pakistan who has proved himself to be a judge for the people, as a chief justice for the people."
The lawyer's movement got a boost last month when Sharif threw his full weight behind it after he and his brother, Shahbaz, were banned from elected office by the Supreme Court. Zardari then dismissed the government led by Shahbaz in the Punjab province, the wealthiest in Pakistan and a vital prize for politicians.
Gilani repeated a pledge made Saturday to appeal that verdict to the Supreme Court.
In recent days, U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, had spoken to Zardari and Sharif, urging them to reach a deal. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad issued a statement welcoming the move Monday.
"This is a statesmanlike decision taken to defuse a serious confrontation, and the apparent removal of this long-standing national issue is a substantial step towards national reconciliation," the statement said. "Now is the time for all Pakistanis and their political representatives to work together, with the support of their friends and allies, to peacefully strengthen their democracy and ensure a positive dialogue as they move forward to deal with the many issues confronting them."
Washington and other Western capitals had been concerned the crisis was distracting Pakistan from its fight against Taliban and al-Qaida militants operating along the Afghan border.
Before dawn on Sunday, hundreds of police surrounded Sharif's residence in Lahore, carrying an order for his house arrest. Sharif denounced the order as illegal and later left the house in a convoy of vehicles as police stood by. It was unclear why they relented, but Lahore is Sharif's political stronghold.
Some of the protesters defied police barricades to gather near the city's main courts complex and pelt riot police with rocks. One mob smashed the windows of buses parked along the route of Sharif's convoy, while another broke into the main Post Office building, trashing furniture and then clambering onto the roof to hurl rocks at police below.
Police responded with tear gas, and beat several protesters with batons. Associated Press reporters saw several injured officers being helped away. A handful of protesters were detained and bundled into police vans.
Later, the crowd swelled to several thousands and police again pulled back. Many were black-suited lawyers, but most appeared to be supporters of Sharif, equipped with party flags and chanting "Go Zardari go!"
For days, the government has been seeking to squelch the protest movement.
Authorities have put the army on alert and temporarily detained hundreds of activists nationwide to prevent them traveling to Lahore or Islamabad. But its resolve appeared to waver Sunday amid signs of internal party dissent. A day earlier, a prominent minister quit Zardari's Cabinet, apparently over attempts to censor critical media coverage.
The Sharifs and 16 other protest leaders were initially ordered under house arrest, said Rao Iftikhar, a senior government official. Later, he said authorities reached an "understanding" with Sharif that he would address the protesters in Lahore and then return home _ an arrangement that authorities failed to enforce.
Sharif accuses Zardari of being behind the Supreme Court ruling last month that disqualified put Sharif and his brother from elected office over convictions dating back to Musharraf's rule.
Associated Press writers Babar Dogar in Lahore, and Zarar Khan and Asif Shahzad in Islamabad contributed to this report.