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Pakistan appoints new U.S. ambassador

November 23, 2011 |  6:54 am

REPORTING FROM ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Pakistani Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani on Wednesday appointed lawmaker Sherry Rehman as the new ambassador in the United States, moving quickly to replace a diplomat who resigned a day earlier amid allegations that he tried to enlist Washington’s help in clamping down on the Pakistani military.

Rehman, a former government minister, is a leading liberal voice in Pakistani politics and was close to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.

Rehman's predecessor, Husain Haqqani, was asked to step down by Gilani on Tuesday following accusations he orchestrated a memo that sought Washington’s assistance in preventing a government coup by Pakistan’s military following the American commando raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden.

Haqqani denied any involvement in the memo, but agreed to resign in order to help quell the controversy.

The accusations against Haqqani were made by Mansoor Ijaz, a Pakistani American businessman who claims the envoy sought his help in delivering the memo through an intermediary to Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen acknowledges receiving the memo but has said he did not regard it as credible.

Rehman, 50, takes on the difficult task of acting as her country’s voice in the acrimonious relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. That relationship plummeted to new lows this year following the shooting deaths of two Pakistani men by a CIA contractor in the eastern city of Lahore, and the raid to kill Bin Laden, which was viewed throughout Pakistan as a breach of the country’s sovereignty.
Despite the mutual mistrust that continues to burden the relationship, both countries know they cannot afford to sever ties. The U.S. regards Pakistan, a nuclear armed state, as a crucial player in the volatile South Asian region and needs Islamabad’s cooperation in bringing an end to the 10-year war against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. Pakistan is heavily dependent on aid from the U.S. and international lending institutions that are strongly influenced by Washington.

A member of the country’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party, Rehman served as President Asif Ali Zardari’s information minister until March 2009, when she quit over restrictions Zardari had placed on a private Pakistani television channel. Like Haqqani, she is a former journalist. She also heads up the Jinnah Institute, a think tank that promotes tolerance and the strengthening of the country’s democratic institutions.

She has been praised in the West for her criticism of the country’s controversial blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to insult the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islam and can entail execution as punishment. The law is often exploited as a means to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities, particularly Christians. She received death threats from Islamist militants after she spoke out against the law.


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Photo: Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's former information minister, talks to reporters in Islamabad on  Wednesday. She has been appointed the country's new ambassador to the United States. Credit: B.K.Bangash / Associated Press