Zardari returns to Pakistan amid memo saga

Reuters News
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Posted: Dec 19, 2011 11:00 AM
Zardari returns to Pakistan amid memo saga

By Faisal Aziz

KARACHI (Reuters) - President Asif Ali Zardari, who was in Dubai for medical treatment, returned on Monday to Pakistan, where tension is rising between his civilian government and the military over a memo accusing the country's generals of plotting a coup.

It's not clear when the deeply unpopular leader who has uneasy ties with the army will return to work.

"The president is thankfully fit and healthy and that is why he has returned," Shazia Marri, information minister for Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, told Reuters.

"However, his activities over the next few days will depend on what the doctors advise."

Zardari could be damaged by the memo, reportedly crafted by the former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, which wants ally Pakistan stable so it can help wind the war down in neighboring Afghanistan.

Businessman Mansoor Ijaz, writing in a column in the Financial Times on October 10, said a senior Pakistani diplomat had asked that a memo be delivered to the Pentagon with a plea for U.S. help to stave off a military coup in the days after the bin Laden raid.

Ijaz later identified the diplomat as Husain Haqqani, the then Pakistani ambassador to Washington who is close to Zardari.

Haqqani denied involvement in the memo but resigned over the what has been dubbed "memogate."

The Supreme Court on Monday started hearings into a petition demanding an inquiry into who was behind it. As president, Zardari is immune from prosecution but the controversy could seriously damage him politically.

If a link is proven, the military, which has long been distrustful of Zardari, could push for his ouster.

Although Zardari has been a largely ceremonial president since constitutional amendments last year, he wields considerable influence as leader of the ruling party and his forced departure would be a humiliation for the civilian leadership and would throw the country into turmoil.

ISLAMISTS SUPPORT MILITARY

While government officials have questioned Ijaz's credibility, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has called for an investigation into the memo, which he said attempted to hurt national security.

Tension between Pakistan's civilian government and military have bedeviled the nuclear-armed South Asian country for almost its entire existence, with the military ruling the country for more than half of its 64-year history after a series of coups.

About 30,000 Islamists staged a protest on Sunday to condemn the United States and show support for Pakistan's military, which has reasserted itself after a cross-border NATO attack and the memo that has weakened the civilian government.

Pakistan's military, which has supported militants in Afghanistan and Indian Kashmir, was humiliated by the unilateral U.S. special forces raid that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani town in May, and faced unprecedented public criticism.

But many Pakistanis rallied behind it after a November 26 cross-border NATO air raid killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, and plunged already troubled ties with Washington to a low point.

No evidence has emerged that the army was plotting a coup and the Pentagon at the time dismissed the memo as not credible.

Haqqani's resignation was seen by many analysts as further weakening the civilian government, which is already beset by allegations of corruption and incompetence and is seen as failing to cope with many issues, such as the Taliban insurgency and a struggling economy.

The military, which determines security and foreign policy, dismisses any suggestion that it might stage a coup but analysts say intervention could not be ruled out in the event of chaos.

Zardari was elected in 2008 on the back of a sympathy vote after his far more charismatic wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated shortly after returning from self-exile.

The shortcomings of Zardari's government may have only served to strengthen Pakistan's generals, and Zardari committed the cardinal sin for any Pakistani politician -- he alienated the military.

At one point, Kayani hinted to the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad that he might have to persuade Zardari to step down because of political turmoil, according to a 2009 cable released by WikiLeaks.

But luckily for Zardari, it seemed the military concluded he was a better option than other political leaders it distrusted even more.

Criminal cases could haunt Zardari, who earned the title "Mr. 10 Percent" while Bhutto was in power, based on allegations he demanded kickbacks on state contracts.

Zardari was also accused of murder. He was never convicted and denied wrongdoing on all charges but spent 11 years in jail.

In 2009, the Supreme Court scrapped a controversial amnesty law that had dismissed corruption charges against thousands of Pakistani politicians, including Zardari.

Even though Zardari is looking more politically fragile after memogate, stepping down would strip him of presidential immunity in the corruption cases.

(Additional reporting by Praveen Menon in DUBAI, and Sheree Sardar and Qasim Nauman in ISLAMABAD; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Robert Birsel)