Pakistan's New Parliament Holds First Session Since Landslide in Elections

Pakistan on Monday inaugurated a new parliament dominated by opponents of President Pervez Musharraf who have vowed to crimp his powers and review his U.S.-backed policies against Islamic militants.

At stake is the future course and political stability of this nuclear-armed nation of 160 million people, which is struggling with economic problems as well as militants linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Just Saturday, a bomb exploded at an Islamabad restaurant popular with foreigners, killing a Turkish woman and wounding 12 people, including four FBI personnel. And on Sunday, a missile attack targeting suspected militants in Pakistan's tribal regions was said to have killed about 20 people.

A bomb blast at a police building in northwestern Pakistan Monday killed three officers and wounded five, state media reported. Several wounded people were rushed to hospital after the attack near the main town of Mingora in the volatile Swat valley where Pakistan's military has been fighting pro-Taliban militants, police officer Karamat Shah said.

In a brief ceremony in the National Assembly, more than 300 of the newly elected lawmakers stood and repeated the oath of office at the prompting of the lower house's outgoing speaker.

Musharraf stayed away from the session, which marked the end of his eight-year domination of Pakistani politics. But Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, and Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister whose government Musharraf ousted in a 1999 coup, watched from the gallery.

Their presence shows that "the people of Pakistan have rejected" Musharraf's takeover, said Ahsan Iqbal, a bespectacled lawmaker for Sharif's party.

"This is the first step for democracy," Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, told reporters earlier. "Democracy is the last step for dictatorship."

Sen. Tariq Azim, a Musharraf loyalist, hailed the inauguration of the lower house as a "step toward political stability."

Bhutto's party, now led by Zardari, won the most seats in the Feb. 18 election, which delivered a resounding defeat to supporters of Musharraf.

Zardari's Pakistan People's Party plans to form a coalition with Sharif and a smaller group from the country's militancy-plagued northwest.

Parliament will only get down to the real business of lawmaking once the new government takes office later in the month. The parties set to lead it, however, have already outlined a set of priorities that may dismay Musharraf and his Western backers.

The People's Party has said its top priority will be to seek a U.N. investigation of the Dec. 27 gun-and-suicide-bomb attack that killed Bhutto, the highest-profile victim of the wave of violence sweeping Pakistan.

In parliament on Monday, its lawmakers wore rosettes with a picture of Bhutto. On a proposal from her party, the leader of a religious party led the house in brief prayer for her.

The coalition also hopes to amend the constitution to strip Musharraf of his power to dissolve Parliament and dismiss the prime minister. It has said it will restore judges purged from the courts by Musharraf when he declared emergency rule last November.

Zardari and Sharif have pledged to move a parliamentary resolution on the issue within 30 days of the new government taking office. The process of restoring the judges "has started today and we will not let the nation down," Sharif said as he left parliament on Monday.

Few believe Musharraf would tolerate the reinstatement of the ousted chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry. Chaudhry, who has been under house arrest for more than four months, could reopen the question of Musharraf's eligibility for the presidency. The court was about to rule on the question when it was dissolved.

Musharraf's allies were routed in the elections partly because many Pakistanis blame the president's friendship with the U.S. with fueling violence at home.

Saturday's attack was the first in Pakistan's quiet capital in several months, and the first targeting foreigners here in more than a year. The wounded included five U.S. citizens, among them the FBI workers.

"Four FBI personnel were slightly injured in the bombing attack in Pakistan," said Special Agent Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman. "The FBI is providing the necessary assistance to our employees and their families."

Pakistanis have also expressed anger over U.S. attacks on militants in the country's lawless tribal regions along the Afghan border, which often have tacit approval from Musharraf's government. Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaida and Taliban leaders are believed to be hiding out somewhere in the regions.

Missiles that witnesses say came from an unmanned drone struck a suspected militant safehouse Sunday in the area. State television said the strike killed about 20 people.

Witnesses said a drone dropped seven missiles on the sprawling, mud-brick compound about three miles outside Wana, the main town in South Waziristan. Only U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan are known to operate unmanned drones in the region, and they have launched attacks over the Pakistani border before.

Pakistani troops are also facing an insurgency in the country's southwest, where ethnic Baluch rebels are fighting for greater autonomy and control over natural resources. On Monday, two paramilitary troops were killed in a land mine explosion in Baluchistan province, said Police officer Abdul Majeed Dashti.

Authorities accuse the rebels of planting mines to target troops guarding natural gas wells and pipelines.