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Pakistani premier tones down criticism of army

By Sebastian Abbot

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 25 2012 7:55 a.m. MST

A family member mourns the deaths of three lawyers in Karachi, Pakistan on Wednesday, Jan 25, 2012. Three lawyers were gunned down and one was injured in an ambush by unidentified gunmen riding on a motor bike, police said. The motive is not yet known.

Shakil Adil, Associated Press

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's prime minister toned down his criticism of the country's powerful generals Wednesday, a sign of lessening tension between the civilian government and the army that some predicted could topple the nation's leaders.

The two sides have long been in conflict, but tempers flared in recent months over a secret memo allegedly sent by the government to Washington last year asking for help in stopping a supposed army coup after the U.S. operation to kill al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. The government has denied any connection to the letter.

The political crisis has come as the government is facing an array of challenges, including a struggling economy, rampant militant violence and troubled relations with its most important ally, the United States.

Denying it ever planned to carry out a coup, the army was outraged by the memo and pushed the Supreme Court to investigate, against the government's wishes. The probe prompted a war of words between Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and the army. He tried to calm that on Wednesday.

"I want to dispel the impression that the military leadership acted unconstitutionally or violated rules," Pakistani state television reported Gilani as saying. "We have to be seen as being on the same page."

His comments followed a meeting Tuesday with army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and the head of the army's powerful intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha. The talk was another sign tempers had cooled.

Gilani previously criticized the army for cooperating with the Supreme Court investigation and said the standoff was nothing less than a choice between "democracy and dictatorship."

The army had warned of possible "grievous consequences" if the government did not tone down its criticism.

The conflict raised fears of a military coup, something that has happened three times since Pakistan was founded in 1947. Many analysts doubted a coup was imminent, but some speculated that the army was working with the Supreme Court to oust the government through constitutional means.

The court has clashed with the government on a separate case involving old corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari and even threatened to hold the prime minister in contempt over the matter.

In violence Wednesday, Gunmen on a motorcycle killed three Shiite Muslim lawyers and wounded one other in the southern city of Karachi in an apparent sectarian attack, said local police officer Naeem Shaikh. The dead included a father, son and nephew, he said.

Sunni Muslim militants have carried out scores of bombings and shootings against minority Shiites in Pakistan. In recent years, Sunni attacks on Shiites have become far more common.

The Sunni-Shiite schism over the true heir to Islam's Prophet Muhammad dates back to the seventh century.

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Associated Press writers Zarar Khan in Islamabad and Ashraf Khan in Karachi contributed to this report.

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