A major opposition party on Wednesday backed Benazir Bhutto's widower to become Pakistan's president, as the power struggle following the resignation of Pervez Musharraf intensified.
Asif Ali Zardari leads the largest party in the ruling coalition, whose drive to impeach Musharraf persuaded the stalwart U.S. ally to quit Monday after nine years in power.
Zardari has played down speculation that he covets the presidency, which his Pakistan People's Party and its allies have vowed to strip of its power.
However, opposition backing will strengthen his hand in a struggle with coalition partner Nawaz Sharif over a compromise candidate to fill the post and the even more urgent issue of restoring judges purged by the former army strongman.
'Wisdom and vision'
A leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Haider Razvi, said it wanted Zardari as president because of his past sacrifices and for his "wisdom and vision" in handling Musharraf's ouster.
The MQM, a strong backer of Musharraf, is the second-largest opposition group in Parliament.
It dominates Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, and other urban areas in the southern province of Sindh and recently buried its long animosity with the People's Party.
Razvi called for a president from outside Punjab, Pakistan's largest and wealthiest province, and said Zardari — a Sindhi — was "most eligible" for the job.
"He is a strong believer in the federation," Razvi said.
The coalition began wrangling over the fate of Supreme Court judges ousted when Musharraf imposed emergency rule last year, just a day after his resignation.
Sharif, whose government was ousted when Musharraf seized power in a military coup in 1999, has championed their cause and wants them returned immediately.
The judges could prove useful allies if Sharif tries to make good on a threat to have Musharraf tried for treason — a charge punishable by death.
However, Zardari has consistently linked their restoration to constitutional amendments that could limit their powers and ultimately protect the ex-general.
Talks on the issue Tuesday produced no breakthrough. Sharif lieutenants say they want a deal by Friday.
If they clear that hurdle, the parties must also seek agreement on a candidate for the presidency. People's Party officials have said it should be a member of their party, although they have yet to name a candidate. Parliament must elect a new president by mid-September.
Few analysts expect the coalition to collapse, arguing that Sharif and Zardari need to share the burden of tackling Islamic militancy and serious economic problems.
However, if it does, Zardari's party could look to the MQM and even elements with the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, the largest opposition bloc, to shore up the government.
Pakistan's citizens and Western backers have been urging the government to set aside political bickering and tackle their urgent security and economic problems.
On Tuesday, officials reported the deaths of 24 militants, five troops and five civilians in fighting in the Bajur, a region bordering Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomb attack killed 26 people outside a hospital crowded with Shiite Muslims in what officials said was likely a sectarian attack.