Pakistan president vows defiance as crises mount 27 Dec 11

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, raises his hands in prayer at her grave to mark her death anniversary at the Bhutto family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, near Larkana December 26, 2011

By Hamid Shaikh

GARHI KHUDA BAKSH, Pakistan | Tue Dec 27, 2011 9:44am EST

(Reuters) – Pakistan’s embattled but defiant President Asif Ali Zardari used the fourth anniversary of the death of his wife Benazir Bhutto to ensure supporters he would not resign in the face of numerous crises building around him.

Zardari, who became president after the former prime minister was killed in 2007 following her return from self-imposed exile, is facing perhaps the greatest threat to the government.

In a jab at the Supreme Court, which is considering an investigation into a memo asking the United States for help against the country’s powerful military and which could implicate Zardari, he asked about the as yet unsolved case of his wife’s assassination.

“People ask what happened to Benazir Bhutto’s case,” he said. “I ask (Chief Justice) Iftikhar Chaudhry: what happened to Benazir Bhutto’s case?”

No one has yet been charged with her assassination at a huge rally outside Islamabad.

Police estimated Tuesday’s crowd at more than 70,000.

Colorful banners sprouted from the throng, which spread out beneath the white, marble mausoleum that contains the bodies of Pakistan’s most famous political family.

Speaking from behind bulletproof glass, Zardari appeared relaxed and healthy, likely calm rumors of his ill health.

He flew to Dubai on Dec 6 complaining of chest pains. Party members there told Reuters he had suffered a transient ischemic attack, a stroke-like attack that leaves no permanent brain damage. He returned on Dec 19.

Members of Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party say opponents are working with the Supreme Court and the army to bring down the government.

The death anniversary came the same day the Supreme Court began deliberations on whether it could open its own investigation into the so-called “memogate” scandal.

It also came two days after cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan brought at least 100,000 people into the streets of Karachi in a rally that increases pressure the government and cements his standing as a political force.

The memogate hearing, which was adjourned without any decision, is likely to be front-page news on Wednesday, reflecting the intense interest in incremental developments in the crisis.

CALL FOR INVESTIGATION

It involves the publication an unsigned memo seeking Washington’s help to rein in the military after U.S. forces found and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May.

Pakistan’s then ambassador to the United States, Husain Haqqani, has been accused of writing the memo on behalf of the government. He denies involvement but has resigned pending an investigation.

Chief of Army Staff General Asfaq Kayani has called for an investigation into the memo, which has set off a flurry of speculation of a rift between the government and the army which has ruled Pakistan for almost half of its 64-year history.

The political crisis also comes as ties between the United States and Pakistan drop to their lowest point in decades following a NATO cross-border attack on Nov 26 that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. A U.S. report on the incident blamed both sides for poor communications and bad maps.

The incident infuriated Pakistan’s army, which is demanding an apology from President Barack Obama, and led to the closure of supply lines for coalition forces fighting in Afghanistan.

The army has denied planning to take power but Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani has added to the intrigue and confusion.

Last week he surprised many by implicitly suggesting the military was a “state within a state” before reversing himself on Monday night and saying he was “happy” with Kayani and would not fire him or the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, as some media reports claimed.

Zardari “struck a defiant note, but refrained from attacking the military establishment,” at the rally, said security analyst Imtiaz Gul. “This comes a day after Gilani also backed down, and based on that this smacks of some sort of ‘backdown’ on the part of the government.”

Party members on the scene were upbeat.

“The army or the Supreme Court can do nothing to the government and our party,” said Ali Gohar, 45, a PPP worker from the town of Sukkur who has come to pay homage to Bhutto.

“The PPP has the blood of martyrs in its foundations and we will support it as long as we live.”