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Spurred by returned cleric, Pakistanis swarm into city

Crowd blames government for lack of services

Cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri arrived on Monday at the protest in Islamabad, where about 25,000 people took to the streets.

Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images

Cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri arrived on Monday at the protest in Islamabad, where about 25,000 people took to the streets.

ISLAMABAD — About 25,000 Pakistanis angry at a government they say is corrupt and indifferent to the plight of common citizens descended on the capital Monday, responding to the call of a charismatic cleric who has quickly become a powerful but mysterious political force.

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 expected this spring. Undercutting the elections could set the stage for the country’s powerful army to take power.

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Qadri has denied those allegations and insisted his vaguely worded demands for election reform are simply meant to root out corruption. He pledged several weeks ago to lead a ‘‘million-man march’’ on Islamabad on Monday to press his demands.

But Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who has not hidden his disdain for Qadri, estimated the total crowd in Islamabad would not exceed 25,000.

Although the turnout apparently fell far short of Qadri’s promise, there was no lack of enthusiasm from the crowd. Many waved green and white Pakistani flags and wore buttons emblazoned with the cleric’s picture.

Although some spoke of election reform, most were focused on demands such as fixing the country’s rampant energy shortages and rooting out corruption.

‘‘There is no electricity and no gas, and the government has done nothing,’’ said Faizan Baig, 23, a pharmaceutical company worker who traveled to Islamabad from the northwest town of Abbottabad. ‘‘Qadri feels pain for the people, while the government feels no pain for the people.’’

Baig was among those who streamed into the capital throughout the day and camped out on the main avenue running through the city. Male protesters gathered on one side of the road, while women and children were on the other.

Qadri left his home base in the eastern city of Lahore on Sunday accompanied by at least 15,000 people, and the numbers grew as the procession approached the capital.

The government set up dozens of shipping containers in the capital to prevent protesters from reaching key areas. Thousands of paramilitary forces and police in riot gear were also deployed throughout the city.

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. The cleric’s vaguely worded demands include vetting of political candidates to make sure they are honest and taking steps to even out the playing field so more people can participate in the political process.

Qadri has pledged that he and his supporters will remain in Islamabad until their demands are met. That could set up a clash with the government.

Some of Qadri’s comments have prompted critics to question whether he is a front for the Pakistani military to disrupt the democratic process just as it prepares for a transfer of power from one civilian government to another.

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