QUETTA, Pakistan – Pakistan's deposed chief justice revved up the campaign to win back his job Monday as new Cabinet ministers, some wearing black armbands, took their oath of office before President Pervez Musharraf.
The return of former justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry to the political spotlight and the pledge of the new government to restore judges fired by Musharraf cranked up the pressure on the U.S.-backed president to quit after eight years in power.
In a move that could assuage Western concerns that Pakistan might ease up on Islamic militants, the winners of February's elections installed as foreign minister a loyalist of slain leader Benazir Bhutto. Before she was assassinated, Bhutto argued it was crucial for Pakistan to quell Islamic extremism.
Musharraf replaced Chaudhry and about 60 other senior judges during emergency rule in November to halt legal challenges to his re-election as president by the previous parliament, which was dominated by his supporters.
New Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani last week ordered an end to house arrest for Chaudhry, who has become a symbol of resistance to Musharraf's rule.
On Monday, supporters carried baskets of rose petals to shower Chaudhry at Quetta airport. In the baking sun outside, jubilant lawyers in stiff black suits chanted "Go, Musharraf, go!" and "Musharraf must go to jail!"
The ousted judge set out in a bulletproof sports utility vehicle on a seven-mile drive into Quetta, a southwestern city that is his hometown and the capital of Baluchistan province, an impoverished area that is one of the haunts of Taliban militants bordering Afghanistan and Iran.
The Mercedes SUV broke down, however, and had to be towed by another car. Underlining the country's extremist violence, lawyers formed a human shield around the vehicle as it inched forward while anti-terrorism police in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns traveled in front and back.
Hundreds of cars, rickshaws and trucks trailed Chaudhry amid a sea of political party flags representing ethnic Pashtuns, Baluch nationalists, Islamists and the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, an arch foe of Musharraf who is a key player in the new government. Crowds gathered along the roadside and on rooftops to watch.
It wasn't a mammoth turnout, but a spokesman for the lawyers movement that has led opposition to Musharraf for over a year told The Associated Press that the parade sent a powerful message.
"This is meant to be a reception by the lawyers but, as you can see, the people of Quetta and Baluchistan have come out," Aitzaz Ahsan, a senior lawyers leader, said from the driver's seat of the stricken SUV. "It's a signal and a message to all of Pakistan that this is how much people here love him and how much they want him back as chief justice."
Chaudhry, who planned to address the city's bar association later Monday, sat silently by Ahsan, fingering prayer beads and hiding his eyes behind sunglasses.
The targeting of the independent-minded justice last year stirred up popular resentment over military rule that began when Musharraf seized power as army commander in 1997 by ousting Sharif's government. The anger contributed to the rout of Musharraf's political allies in the recent election.
Chaudhry's visit to Quetta was the first stop in a nationwide tour to pressure the government to keep its promise to restore the ousted judges within 30 days. The countdown began with Monday's swearing in.
Some analysts expect Musharraf to quit before the old judiciary can reconsider the legality of his continuing as president. But others say he could team up with the Supreme Court he appointed to try to block the government's plans.
Musharraf, whose power has weakened since he stepped down as army chief in November, is offering to cooperate with the new government.
"I will try to contribute my maximum toward achieving the goals or targets wherever my assistance and contribution is required," he was quoted as saying Sunday by the state-run news agency.
Sharif's party is eager to force Musharraf out.
Three of its leaders wore black armbands as a tense-looking Musharraf inducted them and 21 others into the Cabinet during a sullen ceremony.
"That was in protest because an unconstitutional president was sitting up there and our minister had to take oath under him," said Siddiqul Farooq, a spokesman for Sharif's party.
Bhutto's party, which has the most seats in the new parliament and leads the four-party governing coalition, has been more cautious about Musharraf.
It has vowed to change the constitution to remove the presidential power to dissolve parliament and dismiss the government. But its leaders also emphasize the need for political stability as the Cabinet reviews Musharraf's U.S.-backed counterterrorism policies and tackles economic problems.
In his first policy speech, Gilani, the prime minister, said Saturday that fighting terrorism is the government's top priority. But he also offered talks with militant groups willing to renounce violence — a nod to concerns among Pakistanis that Musharraf's reliance on the army to counter the Taliban and al-Qaida has fueled militancy and a wave of suicide attacks.
But Bhutto's party also tapped a Western-oriented member as foreign minister, making a gesture to Western nations that want Pakistan to deal with Islamic militant groups that have taken root along the Afghan border.
Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a suave Cambridge University-educated scion of a landowning family, did not directly address that issue Monday. He has said previously that stability is key for Pakistan.
After being sworn in as foreign minister, Qureshi said "good governance" should take priority over political rhetoric as the government settles into office.
"I expect the international community to support democracy in Pakistan," he told reporters. "I am sure that the world community has accepted this change wholeheartedly."