ISLAMABAD -- Thousands of Pakistanis fed up with political leaders whom they say are corrupt and indifferent rallied in the Pakistani capital early today, 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. Elections are expected this spring.
Mr. Qadri has denied that and insisted that his vague demands for election overhaul are simply meant to root out corruption in the political system. He pledged several weeks ago to lead a "million-man march" Monday on Islamabad to press his demands.
Early this morning, after Mr. 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 center and government buildings in a protected enclave. Some 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, Mr. Qadri told his supporters that the government should disband. "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.
Mr. Qadri also asked his supporters to take the capital's security into their hands and guard each of Islamabad's buildings. The cleric took an oath in front of the crowd that they all will remain peaceful but stay in the capital 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. Thousands of paramilitary forces and police in riot gear were deployed, and cell phones were jammed after the government warned that militants were planning to attack the protesters.
Mr. Qadri left his home base Sunday in the eastern city of Lahore, 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 about 2 a.m. today.
Mr. Qadri returned to Pakistan in December after years in Canada, where he is 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.
Meanwhile Monday, Pakistan's prime minister dismissed the Baluchistan provincial government as the region's Shiite Muslim minority protested the failure to prevent a series of militant attacks by refusing to bury victims of last week's bombings.
Premier Raja Pervez Ashraf announced the administration's removal after meetings with Shiite elders ended Monday morning and following demonstrations in other cities. After twin terror strikes Thursday in Quetta, the provincial capital, killed at least 86 people, Shiites demanded the government's dismissal and deployment of the army to bolster security.
At least 400 Shiites died in attacks in 2012 in Pakistan, according to a statement issued Thursday from New York City-based Human Rights Watch.world
Bloomberg News contributed.