Pakistan's president returned home Monday from medical treatment in Dubai, hours before the Supreme Court began a hearing on whether he knew of a secret memo to Washington that has raised tensions between the government and the military.
Asif Ali Zardari's sudden departure on Dec. 6 was gleefully portrayed by his critics as the flight of a guilty man from the country, and there was feverish speculation about his health. But soon after his return, he was shown on state TV meeting members of his party, looking happy and healthy and apparently rebuffing rumors he was too ill to return to work.
The memo being probed by the court asks for America's help in reining in the army in exchange for a raft of security policies favorable to the United States. U.S. officials have confirmed receiving the anonymous letter, but said they didn't consider it credible, and ignored it.
Pakistan's army reacted furiously to the memo, which it apparently believes is genuine. Late last month, Husain Haqqani, the country's envoy to Washington, resigned following allegations he masterminded the letter. Haqqani, a key ally of Zardari, has denied any connection to the affair.
Zardari's many critics are hoping the issue can be used to oust the 56-year-old leader. His health has also opened a new front for those who want him out, with some now calling for a team of independent doctors to examine whether he is healthy enough to continue in office.
The army has ruled Pakistan directly or indirectly for most of the country's existence. It still wields immense domestic political power despite being under the nominal control of the government. The Supreme Court, considered relatively hostile to Zardari, is also a major power center.
Political commentators have speculated that the army, which has been on the defensive since the May 2 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town, is using the memo scandal to weaken Zardari. But they also say the military has no appetite to oust the president, not least because they don't want direct "ownership" of the country's massive economic and social problems.
Zardari flew to Dubai on Dec. 6. Officials released a statement by his doctor last week saying Zardari, who has a heart condition, had lost consciousness for several minutes and was suffering from pain in his arm. One associate has said privately that the president suffered a "mini-stroke" that had left no lasting affects.
The Supreme Court accepted petition by the opposition leader this month, asking it to examine the memo scandal.
On Monday, a nine-judge panel Monday opened proceedings, but didn't come to any conclusions. It said it would reconvene on Dec. 22.
Over the weekend, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani said after meeting Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani that there was no clash between the army and the government. That led some to suggest that Zardari, a canny political operator who has survived several other predictions of his demise, may have worked out a behind-the-scenes-deal with the army.
An army statement Monday gave some credence to that, saying Gilani's statement was "unambiguous."