Embattled Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto offered major concessions to his religiosly conservative opponents today in an apparent effort to halt the momentum of their drive to force him from office.
Bhutto announced steps to heighten enforcement of Islamic codes, including prohibitions on gambling and the use of alcohol, and said a council of Islamic religious leaders would be formed to draft a code of moral conduct for Moslems.
The nine-party Pakistan National Alliance, whose supporters have been demonstrating across the country for the past five weeks, includes some of the most conservative religious leaders and parties in Pakistan. Bhutto, by contrast, is a self-proclaimed socialist who leaves a dapper, Western-oriented impression.
Since most Pakistanis already follow religious injunctions against drinking and gambling, Bhutto's steps are clearly directed at the oppositin leadership.
The National Alliance touched off widespread political unrest with charges that the March 7 national elections were rigged. Clashes between Bhutto's supporters and opponents and between demonstrators and police have left more than 100 persons dead.
The opposition has demanded that Bhutto resign and order new elections.
In today's news conference at the governor's mansion here, Bhutto adamantly refused to resign but again offered new provincial elections in place of the March 10 vote that the opposition boycotted. Bhutto said that if the opposition gets a majority of the seats in all four provinces, "I will even be prepared to the newly elected National Assembly dissolved and order fresh elections."
Even this was a sign of how far Bhutto's position has slipped since he refused at first to even consider new elections.
There was no official reation to Bhutto's latest position, but one opposition source said: "It won't stop the movement to get rid of him. It's too little too late."
Bhutto appeared to show the strain of the continuing confronatations in today's news conference, responding testily to several questions.
When one reporter asked him if he was feeling pressure from the army to reach a settlement, he said: "If I thought this was the case, I would not hesitate to take action against the army, as I have against other people."
So far, there has been no open sigh of disgruntlement in the army, but behind-the-scenes meneuvering is believed to be under way, indicating that the army high command is concerned that it may be drawn back into politics.
Bhutto already has suffered a number of defections from his ruling Pakistan Peoples Party. He expelled Sardar Shaukat Hayat last night after the prominent Punjabi led a call by seven of that key state's parliamentary leaders for new national elections.