ISLAMABAD – The Pakistani chief justice whose ouster spurred waves of protests that led to a president's downfall returned to work Sunday, while the ruling party and opposition resolved to cooperate despite their own clash over his reinstatement.
Any reconciliation among the major political factions could spell relief for U.S. and other Western officials who want the nuclear-armed country to focus on eradicating al-Qaida and Taliban fighters nested along its border with Afghanistan.
However, a leadership dispute in Pakistan's most powerful province could still yield partisan wrangling — and more distraction.
Hundreds of lawyers and activists who agitated for former Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry's reinstatement gathered outside his home for a ceremonial flag-raising Sunday morning. They carried balloons and threw rose petals, calling his return a milestone for democracy.
"It is a day of victory for the people of Pakistan," lawyer leader Aitzaz Ahsan said.
Click here for photos of the violence in Pakistan.
Chaudhry formally returned to office after midnight following the Saturday retirement of the chief justice who had replaced him.
Former President Pervez Musharraf removed Chaudhry in 2007 after the independent-minded judge began examining cases that could have embarrassed the military ruler and threatened his claim to office.
The justice's ouster sparked a wave of lawyer-led protests that pressured Musharraf to allow elections which brought his foes to power in early 2008. Musharraf resigned last summer.
His successor, Asif Ali Zardari, promised to reinstate the chief justice but kept stalling, apparently over fears that Chaudhry would examine a deal with Musharraf that granted Zardari immunity from prosecution over corruption allegations.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the second-biggest party, joined the opposition because of Zardari's failure to reinstate Chaudhry. Zardari gave in last week and restored the chief justice after activist lawyers and opposition supporters began a march toward the capital, where they planned to stage a sit-in at Parliament.
U.S. envoys, intent on convincing Pakistan to stay focused on fighting Islamist extremism, met with the president and prime minister ahead of the decision to reinstate Chaudhry.
Sharif was further angered after a Supreme Court ruling last month barred him and his brother Shahbaz from holding elected office.
After the ruling, Zardari dismissed the Punjab provincial government headed by Shahbaz, putting the regional governor in charge in what the Sharifs said was a blatant power grab.
The various political parties are now jockeying for position to form a new coalition to run Punjab. An alliance between Sharif and Zardari's party — as there was in Punjab before the court decision — remains a possibility.
Punjab is Pakistan's wealthiest, most populous and most powerful province, and losing influence there could hamper Zardari's party on the national front. Sharif's party dominates the Punjab assembly, though it lacks an outright majority.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said he hoped for a quick end to the governor's rule in Punjab, and added that reconciliation between the two parties was critical in helping Pakistan focus on major challenges such as militancy and its faltering economy.
The government already has appealed to the Supreme Court to review the judgment against the Sharif brothers.
"We came with an olive branch and a message from President Zardari to let's join hands again to serve the nation," Gilani said after meeting with Sharif on Sunday.
Sharif said he had no personal enmity with Zardari and pledged to be a supportive opposition force. However, he reiterated that his party wanted additional reforms that both parties had previously agreed to, including a reduction in the powers of the presidency.
"We will cooperate as much as we can," Sharif said.