Pakistan’s new president told Parliament today that the nation will not tolerate violations of its sovereignty by “any power” in the name of fighting terror, a clear signal to the US to avoid controversial cross-border strikes.
Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, also asked Parliament to form a committee to consider reducing presidential powers enhanced under his predecessor, long-time US ally Pervez Musharraf.
A series of suspected US missile attacks and an American-led ground assault in Pakistan’s volatile north-west have angered Pakistanis in recent weeks. Mr Zardari has faced criticism for not being more outspoken against the strikes.
“We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism,” Mr Zardari told MPs.
Mr Zardari, who easily won a vote for the presidency earlier this month after Mr Musharraf quit under threat of impeachment, is considered generally pro-American.
He warned in his speech that terrorism was a grave challenge to the country and said the government should prevent terrorist attacks against other countries launched from Pakistani soil.
Taliban and al-Qaida militants use pockets of Pakistan’s north-west to stage attacks in Afghanistan.
During his address to Parliament, Mr Zardari also touched on Pakistan’s convulsing economy, the need for greater rights for women and the conflict with India over Kashmir.
Mr Zardari’s rise to the presidency has brought some hope for political stability after a year of turmoil that included emergency rule, Ms Bhutto’s assassination, a highly charged election, the collapse of a ruling coalition and Mr Musharraf’s resignation.
Though saddled with a reputation of being corrupt, Mr Zardari could prove a powerful president partly because he also leads the party that controls the largest number of seats in Parliament.
But he has promised to respect the supremacy of Parliament, and during his speech asked for an all-parties committee to re-examine constitutional changes under Mr Musharraf that gave the president the power to dissolve Parliament. Mr Zardari called such powers “distortions”.
The mere fact that Mr Zardari addressed Parliament was symbolic: Mr Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 military coup, did so once to jeers from opposition MPs. Next week, Mr Zardari is expected to see US President George Bush while leading a delegation to the United Nations.
Mr Zardari has faced criticism for dragging his feet on promises to reinstate dozens of judges Mr Musharraf ousted last year in a bid to avoid challenges to his rule.
Though some justices have been restored, including a pair of Supreme Court judges who took oaths today, Mr Zardari has pushed for legal changes expected to weaken the judiciary. In his speech he stressed the importance of an independent judiciary.
Mr Zardari also appears wary of the still-deposed chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who questioned a pact signed by Mr Musharraf that quashed long-standing corruption charges against Mr Zardari and Ms Bhutto.
Underscoring the threat of militancy in Pakistan, a suicide car bomber attacked an army convoy today in the North Waziristan tribal region. Three civilians and three soldiers were killed, said Major Murad Khan, an army spokesman.
Pakistani military operations also continued in Bajur, a north-western tribal region bordering Afghanistan. US officials have praised the Pakistani offensive, saying it has led to reduced violence on the Afghan side.