ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's president said Saturday his party would help the opposition return to power in a key province, moving to end a political crisis threatening to hobble his U.S.-allied government's efforts against Islamist militants.
In a reminder of the dangers facing the nuclear-armed country, militants rocketed a transportation depot used to ship supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan and the army said troops killed 26 militants near the border.
Pakistan plunged into political turmoil in January that has damaged the standing of President Asif Ali Zardari, a key Western ally against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants entrenched in the country's northwest.
It began when the Supreme Court disqualified opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister widely considered Pakistan's most popular politician, as well as his brother Shahbaz Sharif from elected office.
Zardari promptly ousted the government in Punjab province, Pakistan's biggest and wealthiest, which had been led by Shahbaz Sharif, prompting a power struggle that Zardari's party appears to have lost.
After weeks of maneuvering over who would lead the new provincial administration, Zardari said Saturday that his party would back the Sharifs' pick.
"Pakistan has many challenges. What it does not need is a challenge from within its democracy," Zardari said in an address to Parliament. He said his party "will not let down the government in Punjab."
The government has appealed the court rulings against the brothers, raising the prospect that Shahbaz Sharif could return. It was not clear when the court would reach a decision or when provincial lawmakers would meet to elect a new chief minister.
Saturday's climb-down was the second major victory for Nawaz Sharif since the crisis broke.
The former prime minister put Zardari on the defensive in January by throwing his weight behind plans by activist lawyers to agitate for an independent judiciary by besieging the federal Parliament in Islamabad.
Under pressure from Washington and the powerful Pakistan army to head off a potentially violent showdown, Zardari caved in to demands to reinstate the independent-minded Supreme Court chief justice ousted by his predecessor, former military ruler Pervez Musharraf.
Zardari's reluctance to restore the judge fueled accusations that he was worried about the legality of a pact enacted by Musharraf that quashed corruption cases against him and his late wife, slain former leader Benazir Bhutto.