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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Thousands of Pakistanis converged on the capital Islamabad on Monday to back a Sufi cleric's call for an indefinite delay to elections and a crackdown on government corruption.
The cleric, Muhammad Tahirul Qadri, has shot to fame since he returned home from Canada weeks ago and demanded an interim government to root out corrupt and incompetent officials blamed for chronic energy shortages, stunted economic growth, flourishing crime and a failing campaign against the Taliban.
Many of the protesters were from a middle class that is being squeezed by soaring prices. They included police officers, teachers, civil servants, domestic workers and students.
The complaints were numerous and familiar: not enough jobs, poor schools and understaffed hospitals, no security and rampant corruption.
"It's a shame for us," said civil servant Huma Cheema, an earnest 30-year-old who wore glasses, a grey headscarf and a badge with Qadri's portrait. "When I came to this job, people were so surprised they could do something without paying me."
Cheema said people in her department demanded a kick-back for every file they handled.
A policeman said his colleagues took money to let criminals go and more if an innocent person wanted to file a case.
Qadri says he wants the judiciary to bar corrupt politicians from running for office and that the army could play a role in the formation of a caretaker government to manage the run-up to elections this spring.
Qadri's call has divided Pakistanis. Some see him as a champion of reform, like 25-year-old Gulshan Irshad, a state school teacher in the central Punjabi town of Gujranwala who said she had not been paid in two years.
"Officials want a bribe for releasing my salary but I won't give in to corruption," she said. "He (Qadri) is the first person who wants to change the whole corrupt system."
Others see Qadri as a possible stooge of the military, which has a history of coups and interfering in elections. They say his demands are unconstitutional and that replacing an elected government with an unelected one will not help accountability.
Leading television anchors have questioned the source of his funds for a lavish media campaign and fleets of buses to transport supporters. Qadri said most of the money was donated by people fed up with the current administration.
He had promised to bring a million people on to the streets to protest, but only a fraction of that number had joined the march in Islamabad by 1500 GMT.
Activists set up microphones on a stage and handed out soup to demonstrators. Police in full riot gear were stationed on street corners and shipping containers had been placed across roads leading to government offices and embassies.
Organisers separated male and female protesters near the stage, which was guarded by riot police, coils of barbed wire and barricades.
"I brought blankets and food with me, believing we will stay and protest for two or three days," said Qamar Ghazi, 30, from the northern town of Mianwali.
As they waited for Qadri to arrive, some in the crowd, wrapped in blankets and waving Pakistani flags, voiced fear that their families would go hungry unless the economy improved.
"I've got three younger brothers and elderly parents," said Mohammed Safraz, a bakery assistant who was worried at the rising price of flour. "I'm here to change Pakistan for them."
Some in the march said they hoped to pressure the government to fire corrupt senior officials by closing down a swathe of the capital. It could hurt Qadri politically to go home without any concessions, said one politician at the event.
"This whole show can't be for nothing," said Ayaz Amir of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N. "That would be utter defeat."
Additional reporting by Katharine Houreld and Mehreen Zahra-Malik; Writing by Katharine Houreld; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer