Islamabad — Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari will likely need two weeks to rest in Dubai following medical treatment there before he returns home, the prime minister said, in comments that could add to speculation about the leader's health and whether he is losing his grip on power.
Questions about the president's future come as Pakistan is navigating a rough patch in relations with its most important ally, the United States, following NATO airstrikes last month that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The government called more than a dozen of its envoys back to Islamabad amid the crisis for a rare 2-day meeting that started Monday.
The attack has pushed the already strained U.S.-Pakistani relationship close to the breaking point, imperiling Washington's efforts to get Islamabad to cooperate on the Afghan war. Turmoil surrounding the Pakistani president would further complicate matters.
Zardari flew to Dubai last week for treatment related to a heart condition, setting off rumors he was fleeing army attempts to oust him following a scandal that has already forced the Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. to resign.
The government initially said Zardari's trip was routine and he would be home in a few days. But reports have surfaced since then that the president's condition was more serious, with some unnamed officials saying he suffered a mini stroke.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani denied the president had a stroke in an interview with the BBC late Sunday. He said Zardari needed medical attention because he was "exhausted."
"That was the reason and now his tests are clear, and he is improving," said Gilani. "I did talk to him, and he has been talking to other Cabinet ministers as well. He sounded very well."
The president's supporters say the stories about his health and ulterior motives for going to Dubai have been whipped up by his political opponents. Speculation of military moves against the civilian government are common in Pakistan because the army has staged several coups and ruled the country for much of its more than 60-year history.
Zardari has been under serious pressure since Pakistan's ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, was forced to resign amid allegations he sent a memo to Washington asking for its help in preventing a supposed military coup following the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May.
The U.S. operation in a Pakistani garrison town outraged officials in Islamabad because they were not told about it beforehand.
Mansoor Ijaz, a U.S. businessman of Pakistani origin, has claimed that Haqqani crafted the memo with the support of Zardari. Both Haqqani and the president have denied the allegations.
Zardari has been asked to appear before the Supreme Court in its investigation into the memo scandal. The first hearing is scheduled for Dec. 19, and the president will submit his reply to the court if he has not returned from Dubai, said Zardari's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, according to Pakistan's leading English-language newspaper, Dawn.
The State Department has said the U.S. believes Zardari's trip to Dubai is "completely health-related" and not connected to the memo scandal.
In September, Zardari underwent an angiography — a medical imaging technique used to visualize the blood vessels of the heart — and some routine medical tests at London's Royal Brompton Hospital and was reported to have received a clean bill of health.
Washington is likely watching Zardari's situation very closely since the president is seen as a fairly solid ally of the U.S. However, the Pakistani army is the strongest player in the country and is still outraged by the NATO airstrikes that killed 24 soldiers along the Afghan border on Nov. 26. The army has claimed the attack was a deliberate act of aggression — an allegation denied by the U.S.
The meeting of envoys in Islamabad will likely focus at least in part on the crisis between the U.S. and Pakistan. Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and the head of the army's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha, attended Monday's session.
Pakistan retaliated against the attack on its soldiers by blocking its Afghan border to NATO supplies, boycotting an international conference aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan and demanding the U.S. vacate an air base used by American drones.
The U.S. left Shamsi base in southwestern Baluchistan province on Sunday, meeting the deadline imposed by the Pakistani government. The move is not expected to significantly impact the covert CIA drone program in Pakistan.