ISLAMABAD, Aug 29: Despite an MQM protest in the National Assembly on Thursday over overnight arrests of what it called hundreds of its workers in Karachi, the government seemed moving towards what Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan sought as a “grand consensus” for a targeted operation against criminals infesting the country’s commercial capital.

And the minister’s ideas about the federal government helping a transparent and non-discriminatory operation led by the Sindh government of the PPP received a rare support from most opposition parties in the house, after two days of heightened tensions over a Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) call for handing over Karachi to the army and then a combined opposition walkout on Wednesday against absence of a government assurance for a briefing to the house on some key foreign policy and security issues before it ends its present session on Friday.

While the MQM demand on Tuesday for handing over its electoral base to the army was rejected the same day by the ruling PML-N and all major opposition parties as an undemocratic prescription in a democratic era, the row over the briefing ended on Thursday with the interior minister telling the house that the prime minister’s adviser on foreign affairs and national security, Sartaj Aziz, would appear before it on Friday to respond to questions raised the previous day about the government’s positions on issues such as the so-called Doha dialogue for Afghan reconciliation, a proposed peace dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban, tensions with India over the Line of Control in Kashmir and widely expected US military strikes in Syria over the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime.

Those issues were raised by opposition leader Khurshid Ahmed Shah and parliamentary leaders of other opposition parties.

The MQM, which had demanded army rule in Karachi over the killing of some members of the Kutchhi community in the city’s Lyari area and alleged patronisation of criminals by the provincial authorities, came with another grouse on Thursday: that the Sindh government had arrested what MQM parliamentary leader Farooq Sattar called “hundreds of our workers without justification” and voiced fears that he and some other party figures could also be arrested. The party’s lawmakers wearing black armbands as a mark of protest also staged a token walkout.

The interior minister said he also received a telephone call from Sindh Governor Ishratul Ibad, who belongs to the MQM, at 4am on Thursday complaining of an operation against his party and that on being contacted by telephone, Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah assured him there were no arrest orders against MQM politicians.

While no information was given to the house about the affiliations of the arrested people except the MQM’s claim of “hundreds of its workers” picked up, Mr Khurshid Shah told reporters later that only alleged criminals had been arrested without any political considerations, with 40 to 50 of them being from the PPP-stronghold of Lyari. While the two successive MQM protests against the Sindh government indicated little chances left for the PPP to pursue its invitation to its ally in the previous PPP-led governments at the centre and in Sindh to join the present Sindh cabinet, the PML-N, which won MQM’s support in the election of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by the lower house in early June and the presidential election last month, too seemed to cold-shoulder the Muttahida.

Chaudhry Nisar, while speaking in the house on Thursday, wondered why the MQM was so strident in attacking security authorities like paramilitary Rangers in Sindh, while “there was no such finger-pointing” when it was part of the PPP-led coalition there for the previous five years and five years before that under military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Mr Sattar had asked for an assurance against any resort to torture of his party workers, forced confessions and “extrajudicial murders” like those of the decade of 1990s during what he called the “so-called democracy of that time” and warned the house that a repetition of such happenings would “lead to an irreversible anarchic and chaotic situation”.

Despite some recent friendliness between the MQM and the PML-N, Mr Sattar’s reference to the 1990s could hardly please the treasury benches as an army crackdown in Karachi then, about which the MQM often claims, was ordered during the first prime ministership of Mian Nawaz Sharif.

Yet the interior minister assured Mr Sattar that “your fears will be addressed” within legal and constitutional bounds though he repeatedly said that he could not give directives to the Sindh chief minister who, he added, would be “team captain” of the envisaged operation with federal security and intelligence agencies acting on his command.

While parameters of the operation would be finalised by a special cabinet meeting before which the prime minister would visit Karachi on Tuesday and hold a meeting with provincial authorities at the Governor’s House, he said.

“But it can succeed only if there is a grand consensus,” the minister said and added: “We are, God-willing, ready to carry out this responsibility.”

He said he also envisioned formation of a committee including representatives of all political parties, some senior businessmen, journalists, and senior citizens to oversee the transparency of the operation.

From the PPP, its senior lawmaker Naveed Qamar said his party “fully welcomes” the interior minister’s stated plans, particularly his assurance that they would be within “the limits of constitution and law”.

Similar endorsement came from the opposition Jamaat-i-Islami and Awami National Party, government-allied Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F and the independent group from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

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