By ZARAR KHAN
Protesters at an anti-government rally have clashed with police in the Pakistani capital.
Television footage showed police shooting into the air to push back protesters early Tuesday.
The demonstration was led by a cleric who recently returned from Canada and has galvanized Pakistanis by railing against a government that many feel is deeply corrupt.
During a speech to supporters early in the morning in Islamabad, cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri called on the government to resign.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.
A cleric who has fired up Pakistanis angry at perceived government corruption and indifference demanded the country’s political leaders resign in a speech to thousands of his supporters who amassed in the capital early Tuesday.
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. Polls are expected this spring.
Qadri has denied that and insisted his vague demands for election reform are simply meant to root out corruption in the political system. He pledged several weeks ago to lead a “million-man march” on Islamabad to press his demands.
During a 40-minute speech delivered behind bullet-proof glass in the early morning, Qadri told his supporters that the government’s mandate was finished.
Qadri called on the demonstrators to break through the containers blocking them from the government offices and peacefully march toward the protected enclave that is often called the “red zone” in Islamabad.
Following his cry, some of the marchers pushed aside the shipping containers that had been placed on the street to block them and walked toward the enclave. There another row of shipping containers and a heavy police presence blocked them from going any further and the protesters appeared to stop. There were no clashes with security authorities, and the rally appeared to be largely peaceful.
Qadri put the crowd assembled on the main avenue leading to the government center at 4 million but far fewer were actually in attendance. One city official put the number of protesters at roughly 30,000. He did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Many in the crowd waved green and white Pakistani flags and wore buttons emblazoned with the cleric’s picture.
Qadri has called for vaguely-worded reforms to the electoral system such as making sure candidates for office are free of corruption. His words have inspired many Pakistanis who are frustrated with a government that they say has given them nothing but unemployment, electricity blackouts, and terror attacks as its five-year term comes to an end.
Security was heavy throughout the city although the rally appeared to be largely peaceful. Thousands police in riot gear protected the streets, and cell phones were jammed after the government warned that militants were planning to attack the protesters.
Qadri returned to Pakistan in December after years in Canada, where he’s 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.
But he was never a national political figure until this winter, when his calls for reforms ahead of elections galvanized many Pakistanis disenchanted by the existing parties.
His arrival in Islamabad was met with raucous cheers, and supporters showered his black SUV with rose petals.
Qadri also asked his supporters to take the security of the capital in their hands and guard and protect each of the buildings of Islamabad. The cleric took an oath in front of the crowd that they all will remain peaceful but stay in Islamabad until the revolution is completed.
Many of the protesters had blankets and appeared ready to camp in the streets.
Some of Qadri’s comments have sparked concern that the cleric is a front for the Pakistani military to disrupt the democratic process just as the country prepares for a historic transfer of power from one civilian government to another.
He has called for a military role in picking the caretaker government that will take over temporarily ahead of elections and has said it could stay in place longer than normal to enact necessary reforms.
Those comments, as well as questions about the origins of his funding, have sparked fears Qadri is really trying to derail the upcoming vote on behalf of the military, which is believed to dislike both the main political parties vying for power, and pave the way for a military-backed caretaker to hold power indefinitely. Qadri has denied any such involvement.
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Sebastian Abbot in Islamabad contributed to this report.