ISLAMABAD, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- An Islamic religious scholar leading Pakistanis on his human rights and anti-corruption campaign reached Islamabad Tuesday, calling on the government to quit.
The convoy of supporters, which set out from Lahore Sunday, arrived in the Pakistani capital early Tuesday, led by Tahirul Qadri, a Pakistani-Canadian cleric, who heads the Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran international movement, Dawn newspaper reported. Qadri accuses the civilian government of President Asif Ali Zardari of corruption and incompetency, and demands sweeping reforms under a caretaker administration ahead of the next general elections, which must be held before May.
Addressing a gathering near Islamabad's Parliament House, Qadri said: "This president and prime minister ... they are now ex-presidents and prime ministers. Their time is over. Dissolve the national and provincial assemblies by the morning," Dawn reported.
Qadri was quoted as warning if the government doesn't step down, "people will start making their own decisions," adding millions of supporters "have rejected your so-called mandate. You are no longer their representatives."
Prior to starting on the "million-man march" from Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city and capital of Punjab province, Qadri had vowed to stay on with his supporters in Islamabad until his objectives are met.
While Qadri was driven in a bullet-proof vehicle, his supporters used a convoy of various vehicles to reach Islamabad. Some had also walked part of the distance.
The convoy also included a number of trucks carrying food, bottled water and cooking-gas cylinders for the participants' "indefinite stay" in Islamabad, the Express Tribune reported.
"Our march will prove to be a march for human rights and true democracy," Qadri had said in Lahore, vowing to end poverty and strengthen the nation.
Dawn said Qadri's bullet-proof truck had been surrounded by security forces, who have expressed concerns of attacks by the Pakistani Taliban, which has been involved in a number of deadly attacks in the country lately.
Dawn said the number of those arriving in Islamabad early Tuesday was estimated up to 50,000.
The report said the government agreed to allow the rally by Qadri on condition it remains peaceful.
Qadri, addressing the crowd from behind a bullet-proof screen, sought support of his supporters until the government gives in to his demands, Dawn reported.
CNN reported Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who visited rally sites Monday by helicopter, said the event had "badly failed" based on turnout numbers.
However, a female protester was quoted as saying she was prepared for a long demonstration. "We will stay here for as long as it takes to change the present situation in Pakistan," she told Geo TV.
CNN reported Qadri has said he only wants a corruption-free electoral process, although some Pakistanis have said he could be working for the military, regarded as the real power in the country.
The report said Qadri in 2010 had issued a fatwa on terrorism, saying it cannot be permitted in Islam. His supporters say his movement promotes "true Islamic teachings."
The Los Angeles Times reported the sit-in had thus far gone on without incident but that there were concerns among many people that the campaign could destabilize the country ahead of the polls.
Although Qadri has been praised in the West for his stand against terrorism, the Times said he has won little support from voters in past elections. It was his disillusionment with Pakistan's politics that made him move to Canada in 2006 and acquire Canadian nationality before returning to Pakistan last December.
"This represents a big threat to Pakistan's parliamentary process and its hard-fought democratic freedoms," Raza Rumi, a political analyst at the Jinnah Institute, told the Times.
The Qadri march comes at a time when Pakistan faces tough economic challenges even as its major cities and towns continue to face what appear to be unending incidents of deadly sectarian, separatist, militant and political violence that have claimed thousands of lives and inflicted untold damage and destruction. In the latest acts of sectarian violence, nearly 100 members of the minority Shiite community were killed in two explosions in Quetta last Thursday.