Pakistan's top court Monday lifted a travel ban imposed on the country's former ambassador to the U.S. during an investigation into a memo sent to Washington that had enraged the army, in a sign that a scandal that once looked capable of bringing down the government may be losing steam.
Husain Haqqani resigned in November and returned to Islamabad to answer allegations that he masterminded the note, which asked for Washington's help in curbing the powers of the Pakistani army in exchange for security policies favorable to the U.S.
The unsigned memo, sent to Washington following the May 2011 American operation that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistan army town, appeared to confirm the army's worst fears that the country's elected politicians were conspiring with Washington _ a potent charge in a country where anti-Americanism runs deep.
The outrage, whipped up by right-wing, pro-army sections of the media, exposed the apparent fragility of the government in the face of generals who have ruled the country for much of its more than 60-year existence and still run defense and foreign policy.
Haqqani, who denies any link to the memo, said he now intends to travel to United States to join family there.
"Anywhere else, this matter would have been laid to rest long ago," Haqqani said. "The memo had no impact on U.S. policy and was consigned to the dustbin by its recipient."
The Supreme Court set up a commission to investigate the affair, dubbed "memogate" in the Pakistani media, after opposition politicians petitioned for an inquest. Despite the fact he had not been charged with a crime, the commission had banned Haqqani from traveling.
On Monday, it ruled that Haqqani _ who has been living in the prime minister's residence, reportedly worried about threats to his life _ could travel. The court said Haqqani had to return to Pakistan if the commission required it. Haqqani said he would comply with the orders.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland welcomed the lifting of the travel ban. "We continue to expect that Pakistan will resolve this situation and other internal issues in a transparent manner and upholding Pakistani laws and constitution," she said.
Up until a few weeks ago, there was speculation that the "memogate" scandal could lead to the demise of President Asif Ali Zardari's regime. But last week, the main accuser _ a Pakistani-American businessman who claimed to have delivered the note to Adm. Mike Mullen, the top U.S. military officer at the time _ said he couldn't come to Pakistan to testify, citing security fears.
That appears to have dealt a sharp blow to the case, even assuming the accuser, Mansoor Ijaz, had a "smoking gun" linking Haqqani and President Zardari to the memo. Many observers have since predicted that the probe is heading nowhere. Some media reports have speculated about a possible agreement between the army and the government to shelve the case.
Haqqani has won support from some U.S. lawmakers and pro-democracy activists in Pakistan, who painted him as a victim of army meddling in the democratic process. While he worked hard in Washington defending Pakistan _ a challenging task over the past few years _ prior to taking the job he was known as having an anti-army line.
The scandal has transfixed Pakistan's media and political class even as the country grapples with more existential threats like Islamist militancy and potential economic collapse.
On Monday, a suicide bomber killed a leader of a militant group that has been fighting a rival outfit in northwest Pakistan close to the Afghan border, said police officer Imtiaz Khan.
Haji Akhunzada was a senior figure in Ansarul Islam, which operates in the Khyber tribal region close to the Afghan border.
Akhunzada was killed along with his son-in-law while visiting his house close to the city of Peshawar, said Khan.
Ansarul Islam is fighting with another militant group, Lashkar Islam, for control of Kyhber, and dozens of people have been killed in the violence.
Associated Press writer Riaz Khan contributed to this report from Peshawar.