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Power struggle could further destabilize Pakistan

By Tom Hussain, McClatchy Newspapers

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s powerful army wants President Asif Ali Zardari gone, but it has ruled out staging a coup, and instead is hoping for a legal ruling that could lead to Zardari’s impeachment by the country’s parliament, analysts and military insiders say.

Zardari suffered a setback Friday when Pakistan’s Supreme Court set up a judicial commission to investigate an alleged request by his government for U.S. help in averting a coup in return for full cooperation in crushing Pakistan-based Afghan insurgents and reining in the country’s premier intelligence agency.

The government fought the ruling, contending that the so-called Memogate scandal is a political matter that is already being investigated by parliament.

If the judicial panel confirms the authenticity of the offer to the U.S. — allegedly made in a secret memo drafted by a top Zardari adviser — it could trigger parliamentary impeachment proceedings against the president. Yet impeaching Zardari could prove difficult as he enjoys immunity from prosecution and his Pakistan Peoples Party controls the largest bloc of legislative seats.

The result could be a stalemate that’s likely to see the army intensify its battle against Zardari — consigning Pakistan to a prolonged internal power struggle that would divert its leaders from tackling violent Islamic radicalism and repairing ties with the United States.

“Given the churn in the internal situation, this could prove distracting for the leadership and complicate decision-making,” said a Western diplomat, who requested anonymity because of the delicacy of the situation. “We’re seeing a process that could play out over several months.”

Top generals want to force out Zardari, the widower of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, considering him too pro-West and bent on wresting away the army’s control over national security and foreign policies, analysts and military insiders said.

“It’s not really about national security, although that’s part of it,” said Hamir Mir, the host of Pakistan’s most popular current affairs television show. “The problem is that some generals suffer from a deadly disease which makes them crave a (figurehead) presidency, with the dominant role reserved for the army.”

But the powerful military-run spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, advised the army chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, that the public would oppose a fifth military coup in 64 years, military insiders said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Pakistan’s fiercely independent chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhury, made it clear earlier this month that the Supreme Court would declare a coup an act of treason. A takeover also would unify the normally fractious major political parties against the army and incur the wrath of the highly influential media, analysts said.

Like the October 1999 coup by former Gen. Pervez Musharraf, another takeover would leave Pakistan isolated internationally, bringing severe repercussions for its crisis-ridden economy, analysts said.

Despite an injection of $20 billion in American aid since 2001, Pakistan remains deeply impoverished and has accrued a $60 billion foreign debt. Loan repayments and military spending consume nearly 70 percent of the national budget, leaving very little for development or social services.

A coup would trigger a total cutoff of all U.S. assistance, and Washington could use its influence with multilateral financial institutions, like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, to block fiscal support.

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