x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Zardari rules out resigning as Pakistan president

Pakistan's president said he has no intention of stepping down in the face of allegations his government sought US help in reining in Pakistan's powerful military.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's president said he has no intention of stepping down in the face of allegations his government sought US help in reining in Pakistan's powerful military.

Asif Ali Zardari, speaking in an interview that aired on Saturday night on Pakistan's Geo News TV, was responding to a question about whether army leaders might seek his resignation.

"No one has asked me yet," Mr Zardari said. "I don't think there is such an innocent in Pakistan who will demand my resignation."

The scandal centres on a memo sent in May to US Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. It asked for his help in stopping a supposed army coup after the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The unilateral US raid angered and embarrassed Pakistan.

News of the memo first surfaced in October when Mansoor Ijaz, a US businessman of Pakistani origin, wrote a column in the Financial Times claiming that Pakistan's former ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, crafted the memo and asked him to send it. Mr Ijaz also claimed that the memo had Mr Zardari's support.

Mr Haqqani, along with Mr Zardari's government, have denied the allegations, but the envoy resigned after the scandal.

Pakistan's supreme court has ordered a judicial investigation into the scandal. The government said that the probe is unnecessary because a parliamentary board is already investigating.

The Pakistani army, which has denied it ever intended to carry out a coup, was outraged by the memo and supports the Supreme Court investigation.

Talk of Mr Zardari's possible resignation took on momentum when he suddenly left Pakistan for a Dubai hospital in early December where he was treated for as yet unspecified reasons. One of his close associates has said he had suffered a "mini-stroke".

He returned to Pakistan on December 19.

In Saturday's interview, Mr Zardari was asked if leaving again was an option for him, in order to avoid humiliation or even an arrest by the army.

"Why should it be?" he responded.

On Friday night, speaking to the parliamentarians from his Pakistan People's Party (PPP), Mr Zardari said that he saw "no threat to democracy" in Pakistan, which has been ruled for the most part of its 64 years by the military.

He called on parliamentarians to reach out to people and hold rallies to mobilise public opinion in the government's favour.

"No matter what happened, the PPP will not disappoint the nation and the people will find us fully prepared to face any eventuality with courage and determination," Mr Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, quoted him as saying in a statement on Thursday.

Mr Haqqani, who stepped down under pressure of the army, said in an interview with The Telegragh, published on Thursday, that he was being dubbed a "traitor" and "Washington's lackey" by the country's "powerful quarters" - in an apparent reference to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's main intelligence agency. He said that he feared he might be killed.

Pakistan is an important partner for the US in its efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and fight the war on terrorism. But anti-American sentiments run high in the country. Mr Zardari, the widower of the slain former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, is seen by many Pakistanis as being too close to the US.

Three US senators - Mark Kirk, John McCain and Joe Lieberman - on Thursday decried the treatment meted out to Mr Haqqani, including a travel ban, since he returned to Pakistan in November.

"We urge Pakistani authorities to resolve this [memo] matter swiftly and consistent with civilian rule of law and to prevent the judicial commission investigating ambassador Haqqani from becoming a political tool for revenge," they said in a statement.

As the rift between the government and the military deepened, Nawaz Sharif, Mr Zardari's main rival and the former prime minister, as well as Imran Khan, the cricketer-turned politician, have held large rallies calling on the government to stand down and call early elections.


* With additional reports from Associated Press and Reuters