Pakistani president returns home amid rising tensions with military
REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN AND KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- With enmity growing between Pakistan's civilian government and the powerful military, President Asif Ali Zardari made a surprise return to Pakistan early Monday after a nearly two-week stay in Dubai for what aides described as medical treatment for stroke-like symptoms.
Zardari arrived back in his homeland amid an escalating domestic political crisis and continuing tensions over an American airstrike last month that killed more than two dozen Pakistani troops along the border with Afghanistan. Results of an American military investigation into the border incident -- which sent U.S.-Pakistani relations plummeting to a new low and set off angry anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan -- are expected as soon as this week.
Zardari's abrupt departure on Dec. 6 had given rise to speculation that the Pakistani military, with which the civilian government has long been at odds, was pressuring him to step aside. Aides had earlier said that Zardari might require a lengthy period of recuperation, but his swift return suggested the political crisis had become too serious for him to stay away.
In a scandal that has roiled the country for weeks, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani, was forced from his post last month in a scandal over a secret memo that sought U.S. aid in averting a potential military coup. Haqqani has denied authorship, but political foes say he and Zardari were behind the memo, which infuriated the military establishment.
Pakistan's Supreme Court convened briefly Monday to begin hearings on the memo affair, but adjourned until Thursday. The military, still smarting from May's raid by elite U.S. troops that killed Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani garrison town, has demanded a thorough airing of the memo case.
Haqqani's lawyer, well-known human rights activist Asma Jehangir, told journalists on the steps of the court Monday that the head of Pakistani intelligence should have resigned immediately after Bin Laden was found to have been sheltering in Pakistan, Dawn TV reported.
Aides said the Pakistani president did not intend to return immediately to the capital. Zardari's plane landed at a military base in the southern port city of Karachi -- the political base of his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Dec. 27 will mark the fourth anniversary of her assassination, and Zardari is expected to preside over solemn remembrances on that date.
-- Nasir Khan and Laura King
Photo: Pakistani police and paramilitary soldiers stand guard Monday at the Supreme Court building in Islamabad as the high court began investigating the memo sent to Washington. Credit: Anjum Naveed / Associated Press