Pakistan's President Zardari to leave hospital, but return unclear

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 14, 2011 

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will be discharged from hospital in Dubai on Thursday, but it remained unclear when he will return home, according to his aides.

The state of the Pakistani's leader's health has been the subject of intense speculation since he was flown out of the country Dec. 6 after suffering what was described as a "mini-stroke." The departure of Zardari, whom Washington views as an ally in a country where it has few friends, deepened Pakistan's political crisis.

Zardari, who has a history of heart illness, will recover at his home in Dubai, where some of his children also live, aides said. Zardari's son and political heir apparent, 23-year-old Bilawal, flew to Pakistan to stand in for his father as head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party.

"The president is itching to come back, but one thing is for sure — he can't get any rest here," an official in Pakistan close to Zardari said Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Concerns over Zardari's health were heightened by a U.S. media report that he was "incoherent" during a telephone call with President Barack Obama on Dec. 4.

Zardari's hospitalization in Dubai led to speculation that he was seriously ill or that he might not return to Pakistan. It also came amid feverish rumors that he was suffering from a mental breakdown, amid secrecy and contradictory statements from the president's office.

The verdict from doctors at the American Hospital in Dubai was released publicly, although speculation over Zardari's political future was likely to continue until he returned to Pakistan.

The letter, signed by a doctor, Khaldoun Taha, and dated Dec. 13, said that Zardari was admitted to hospital "with a chief complaint of left arm numbness and twitching," along with a "loss of consciousness that lasted for (a) few seconds." Tests found no major abnormalities, and Zardari was advised to rest at home and continue his regular heart medications, the letter said.

Zardari faces a raft of political problems at home. On Dec. 19, the Supreme Court will take up an explosive case in which Zardari's close confidant, Hussain Haqqani, Pakistan's former ambassador to the United States, is accused of offering Washington a deal to rein in Pakistan's military in return for greater U.S. support for the weak government in Islamabad.

The offer was reportedly delivered by a Pakistani-American businessman, Mansoor Ijaz, in an anonymous memo in May to the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Adm. Mike Mullen. The offer became public knowledge in October. Ijaz has claimed he was acting on Haqqani's instructions, but Haqqani, who was fired over the issue, denies any role.

Islamabad remains abuzz with talk that the government will be dismissed, possibly by the courts acting under pressure from the powerful military, which has long wanted to oust Zardari. Some saw the president's hospitalization as a possible prelude to him going into exile. The controversy gives the military new grounds to be suspicious of Zardari.

Zardari is unpopular and controversial within Pakistan, never having lived down his reputation for corruption while his 4-year-old government has stumbled from crisis to crisis.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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