Thousands of Pakistani activists and lawyers gathered in major cities Monday to kick off a series of protests aimed at pressuring the new government to restore judges sacked by President Pervez Musharraf.
The so-called "Long March" is expected to culminate in a rally and prolonged sit-in at the capital, Islamabad, later in the week _ another headache for the 2-month-old government, already struggling with Islamic militancy and serious economic problems.
The protests by Pakistan's lawyers' movement, which spearheaded opposition to Musharraf's rule last year, could intensify calls for the U.S.-allied former army strongman to resign.
But it could also widen rifts within the coalition that came to power after February elections, ending eight years of military rule.
The main ruling party of Asif Ali Zardari, and its largest partner, ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N party, have failed to resolve differences over how to reinstate the judges. Sharif's party intends to participate in the protests.
In Karachi, Pakistan's commercial capital, Sabihuddin Ahmed, the deposed chief justice of the high court in the southern province of Sindh, saw off a convoy of dozens of vehicles headed Monday to the main gathering point of the rally, the central city of Multan.
"Today is the historic day that the lawyers and judges have come out to protect the country and the constitution," Ahmed said.
Some 4,000 political activists from parties gathered and chanted slogans such as "Go, Musharraf, Go!" and "Musharraf is an American dog!"
Security forces were also out in large numbers, but the rally was peaceful.
Outside the Multan District Courts, a group of lawyers hung a large effigy of Musharraf, kicked it, beat it with sticks, and set it ablaze.
Musharraf ousted dozens of judges in November during a burst of emergency rule imposed as he faced legal challenges to staying on as president. The move outraged lawyers and his political opponents, who were already angry over an earlier attempt by the president to depose the chief of the Supreme Court.
After they won the elections, Zardari's and Sharif's parties promised to restore the judges but they have not agreed on the mechanics.
Sharif has argued the judges' restoration should be simple _ essentially done through an executive order from the prime minister. But Zardari has wanted to link the judges' return to a major package of constitutional reforms that not only would affect the judiciary but also would weaken the presidency.
"We do not understand why despite claiming that they believe in restoring the judges ... why are they delaying the implementation?" Sharif party spokesman Sadiqul Farooq said Monday of Zardari's party. He insisted his party would be "part and parcel" of the protest, but noted muted support from its coalition partner.
The parties also appear at odds over how to deal with Musharraf. Sharif is calling loudly for the president's ouster and to be put on trial for treason, but Zardari appears wary of a confrontation with Musharraf, who says he has no plan to resign.
But critics say the furor over the future of the president _ who now wields little authority _ and the restoration of the judges has sidetracked the new civilian administration from tackling Pakistanis' most abiding concerns: chronic power outages, food shortages and high inflation.
Various marching groups are expected to reach Islamabad by Thursday or Friday. They will stage a sit-in in front of parliament house "until all judges are restored through an executive order," said Sardar Ismatullah, President of Rawalpindi High Court Bar Association.
The Interior Ministry chief, Rehman Malik, said Monday that the government would not try to stop the demonstrators from marching on Islamabad.
"This is the right of people to demonstrate. As long as they are peaceful, we will be peaceful, and we are assured by them that they will be peaceful," Malik said.
Associated Press writers Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Khalid Tanveer in Multan, and Zarar Khan and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad contributed to this report.