KARACHI, Pakistan — Pakistan recalled its ambassador to Washington on Thursday amid a growing clamor here over claims that Pakistan's civilian president had sought U.S. backing against senior military leaders in the wake of the discovery that al Qaida founder Osama bin Laden had been living in Pakistan.
The allegations were made last month by a Florida-born businessman and one-time Fox News Channel commentator in an opinion article that appeared in Britain's Financial Times.
The businessman, Masood Ijaz, whose father was Pakistani, wrote that a week after the May 2 raid in which bin Laden was killed, "a senior Pakistani diplomat" had asked him to deliver a letter from Pakistani President Asif Zardari to Adm. Mike Mullen, who was then the top U.S. military officer and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Ijaz wrote that in the letter Zardari offered to disband the notorious Section "S" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate spy agency in return for American support. The S wing is in charge of Afghan operations, including dealings with the Taliban and other Islamic militants.
Ijaz did not identify the senior diplomat, but in the weeks of frenetic news coverage in Pakistan since the column was published, suspicion has fallen on Husain Haqqani, the country's envoy to the United States, who is both close to Zardari and considered an effective Washington operator.
Haqqani has denied having anything to do with such a letter, but on Wednesday he offered to resign to quiet the furor. On Thursday, he warned that the letter was being exploited by the opponents of democracy in Pakistan.
"I do not want this non-issue of an insignificant memo written by a private individual and not considered credible by its lone recipient to undermine democracy," Haqqani said. "I did not write or deliver the so-called memo."
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told parliament that the ambassador had been recalled to Islamabad "to explain his position."
So far, there is no evidence tying Zardari or his representatives to the letter. But Pakistan's opposition has seized onto the story, and whether it's true or not, it's likely to drive a wedge between Zardari's government and the military, which have always had an uneasy relationship.
After first denying that Mullen had received the letter, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby told Foreign Policy magazine on Wednesday that Mullen in fact had gotten a letter but had dismissed it as not "at all credible" and took no action. Kirby explained the change in story, Foreign Policy reported, by saying that after the initial inquiry, Mullen asked other associates about the letter and found someone who had a copy of it.
Anti-Americanism in Pakistan reached new levels after U.S. special forces entered the country and found and killed bin Laden in the garrison town of Abbottabad. The American operation deeply embarrassed Pakistan's military, which condemned the raid as a breach of its territorial sovereignty and views Haqqani's access to the corridors of power in Washington with deep suspicion.
Any suggestion that Zardari reached out to Washington against his own armed forces is very wounding for his government.
Many Pakistanis believe that the Zardari government, and the regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf before it, sold out the country's interests to join Washington's "war on terror." Such anti-American feeling is perhaps most acute in the military itself.
Opposition politicians also have denounced the government over the allegations.
"Fear of a coup is forcing the government into indefensible positions," said Khurram Dastagir, an opposition member of parliament. "To seek American help for their political survival is outrageous."
Given Haqqani's connections in Washington, it's unclear why he would choose Ijaz to deliver a message.
Born in 1961 in Tallahassee, Fla., Ijaz, who received a bachelor's degree in nuclear physics from the University of Virginia and a master's in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, operates a New York investment firm, Crescent Investment Management, and has been a frequent contributor to news organizations on terrorism. In 2001, he co-wrote a column with former CIA Director James Woolsey in The New York Times that advocated Washington sell nuclear security equipment to the Pakistani government. He's also been a commentator on Fox News, NBC, the BBC and other outlets.
During the Republican presidential campaign in 2007 he briefly captured attention by expressing outrage at statements by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that he would not appoint a Muslim to his cabinet if he were elected president.
In his Oct. 10 Financial Times column, Ijaz advocated that the U.S. State Department declare the ISI's S wing a sponsor of terrorism. He called the ISI a "cancer" that "embodies the scourge of radicalism that has become a cornerstone of Pakistan's foreign policy."
U.S. officials, including Mullen, have repeatedly accused the ISI of secretly backing the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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