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Normally this would count as a minor news item, just something to monitor: the president of Pakistan has a heart condition and flew for medical testing to Dubai. But it so happens that President Asif Ali Zardari left the country just as his presidency was under intense pressure from Pakistan's army. He was about to speak to Parliament about an alleged attempt to enlist the U.S. in helping the civilian government against the military. NPR's Corey Flintoff is following this story from Islamabad.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: And let's start with what's known. What is Zardari's office saying about his condition?
FLINTOFF: Well, the office has confirmed that he was flown out of the country early this morning and taken to a hospital in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He has been treated for a heart condition in the past, so that part of the story is plausible. But what people here are questioning is the timing. The president had said that he would appear before a joint session of parliament to answer questions about this memo scandal, which has been all over the front pages of all the newspapers here for weeks.
INSKEEP: What did that memo say and who was it sent to?
FLINTOFF: Well, as you know, the military establishment here dominates the civilian government. But this memo came out right after U.S. commandos killed Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil. And after that, the military was absolutely reeling. At the worst, this seemed to suggest that the military was colluding with al-Qaida. And at the very least, it suggested the military wasn't capable of defending Pakistan's own borders.
The allegations claim that President Zardari was fearful of a military coup and that he wanted to convey those fears in a secret letter to Admiral Mike Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
INSKEEP: So let's take this conspiracy theory to its conclusion then. Zardari was embarrassed by the publication of this memo. He had to get rid of his ambassador to the United States, but why would this scandal prompt him to leave the country, if, in fact, that has anything to do with him leaving the country?
FLINTOFF: Well, what the memo allegedly asked is that the U.S. intervene and pressure Pakistan's military not to stage a takeover. And in return, it offered to align Pakistani government policy with U.S. policy, especially in support of the war effort in Afghanistan.
No, Zardari and other top officials, including HusainÂ Haqqani, who's the former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., have denied any connection to any such memo. But there are many people here who believe that if those accusations were true, they would amount to treason. That is basically asking the U.S. government to intervene in Pakistani affairs and offering to become a U.S. puppet.
INSKEEP: Although, some commentators in Pakistan have noted the irony that you would call it treason for a civilian leader to ask for help to avoid an unconstitutional military coup. But setting that aside for a moment, what does all of this mean, Corey Flintoff, for U.S.-Pakistan relations? It's a sensitive time.
FLINTOFF: Well, U.S.-Pakistan relations are at a new low after that NATO air strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border last month. Things were shut down, including supply lines, through Pakistan, to NATO forces in Afghanistan.
But even that crisis was showing slight signs of improvement. The prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gillani, said on Monday, he believes it won't take long to build a new relationship with Washington. Pakistan is still cutting off those NATO supply lines in retaliation, but the supply lines are a key source of revenue for the country and it's unlikely that they'll stay blocked for long.
INSKEEP: NPR's Corey Flintoff is in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad. President Asif Ali Zardari is not there. He's been flown to the United Arab Emirates for medical treatment.
Corey, thanks very much.
FLINTOFF: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.