* Pakistan protests enter 13th day amid impasse
* Army chief, Sharif discuss political situation
* Army's role is key to how the crisis pans out
(Adds quotes, background, details from protest site)
By Mehreen Zahra-Malik
ISLAMABAD, Aug 26 Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz
Sharif met the country's powerful army chief on Tuesday as a
political deadlock over mass protests to demand the government's
resignation showed no signs of resolution.
Pakistan has been gripped by peaceful anti-government
protests demanding Sharif's resignation this month, with
thousands of demonstrators camped outside parliament in a
country that has experienced a succession of military coups.
Sharif's press office said army chief Raheel Sharif and the
prime minister discussed the protests and agreed to resolve the
issue "expeditiously in the best national interest".
The meeting was one of many the two leaders have held in
recent weeks over the impasse, said a senior source at army
headquarters in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.
"They are discussing solutions," said the official, who
asked not to be named as he was not authorised to talk to
reporters. "This situation is very alarming for the army. We are
dealing with mobs. What if things get violent?"
The army's media wing declined official comment.
Protesters led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and
firebrand cleric Tahir ul-Qadri have vowed to occupy the
capital, Islamabad, until Sharif resigns - a demand the premier
has firmly rejected.
Thousands of protesters are now camped out in the heart of
Islamabad - the so-called "Red Zone" - but the gathering has a
festival-like atmosphere. Security forces protecting nearby
installations have not used force to disperse the crowds.
Whether the protests fizzle out or take a more violent
course ultimately depends on the stance taken by the military in
a country ruled by generals for half of its history.
"No one wants to take any steps that would make the
situation worse," the military source said.
On Monday, the supreme court ordered protest leaders and the
government to find a compromise solution so that the "Red Zone"
- home to parliament, the prime minister's home, embassies and
government offices - could be cleared by the following day.
But protesters defied the court's orders and stayed put for
the 13th day on Tuesday, scattering the area with garbage as a
putrid smell of human waste and rubbish hung in the air.
Police at the site said some of their colleagues had fallen
ill. "It is impossible to be here sometimes, the smell is so
bad," said constable Ahmed Ali. "If the revolution is coming,
let it come already. Everybody wants to go home."
Sharif has a difficult relationship with the army: his last
term in office ended in 1999 when then army chief General Pervez
Musharraf launched a coup to usher in a decade of military rule.
Ties with the military soured further when the government
prosecuted Musharraf for treason last year, angering officers
who see the army as Pakistan's saviour and despise politicians
as corrupt and inefficient.
Sharif also opposed a military offensive to crush Taliban
insurgents and, crucially, sought reconciliation with neighbour
India - a perceived threat the army uses to justify its huge
budget and national importance.
Some officials have accused elements within the military of
orchestrating the recent protests to weaken the civilian
government. The military insists it does not meddle in politics.
Few believe the military wants to seize power this time, but
there is a widespread perception it is using the protests as an
opportunity to weaken Sharif.
Government officials and protest leaders have been in
sporadic talks since last week to find a peaceful solution to
the crisis but Khan has refused to back down unless Sharif quits
over accusations that he rigged last year's general election.
On Monday, Qadri too gave the government another deadline to
quit by the middle of this week, saying otherwise circumstances
might be "uncontrollable".
Government sources fear that if the agitation turns violent,
the army could exploit the situation to seize power.
"It is unlikely," said the military source, referring to the
chances of Sharif stepping down or the army forcing him to quit.
"But if events overtake ... one can't say," he said. "We should
all work to avoid extreme possibilities."
(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bokhari in Lahore and Maria
Golovnina in Islamabad; Writing by Maria Golovnina and Mehreen
Zahra-Malik; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)