Rumors of Mental Health Issues Dog Pakistan's New President

Asif Ali Zardari completed a meteoric rise from polo-loving playboy to president of Pakistan today, promising not to cede "one inch" to insurgents who live along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Zardari, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's widower, takes power though he is still dogged by a reputation that gave him the nickname "Mr. Ten Percent" for allegedly skimming off the top of every deal made when his wife was in power.

He spent 11 years in prison on corruption and murder charges, although he was never convicted of anything. He has said he was tortured in prison, suffering trauma that led two psychologists to write that he had "emotional instability," including post-traumatic stress, depression and dementia, according to the Financial Times.

His supporters here insist that he is perfectly healthy now, pointing out that since February he has engineered former President Pervez Musharraf's resignation, pushed a political rival out of a coalition and won a presidential election in a landslide.

"My presidency will be a humble one," he said during his first news conference as president, attended by more than 200 reporters and about 75 cameras.

Chief among Zardari's concerns will be an economy veering toward default and a militancy that has never been stronger.

Sitting next to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Zardari declined to criticize the United States for recent attacks on Pakistani soil and insisted he was the right man to fight the Taliban.

Musharraf became unpopular here in part because he was seen as fighting an American war, and analysts say if Zardari is going to succeed at confronting the militancy, he will have to convince the public that he is fighting on behalf of Pakistan, not the United States.

"Yesterday's war may have not had the people behind it, but today's war does have the people of Pakistan -- in fact, it has the president of Pakistan, who himself is a victim of terrorism," Zardari said.

Reflecting Pakistani opinion polls that suggest most residents here believe peace deals with the militants would end suicide attacks, Zardari described his strategy against the Taliban as a mostly defensive one.

"We only go against people who are offensive against us," he said. "Otherwise, we have asked for peace."

President Bush, who telephoned Zardari this afternoon, used a speech today at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., to single out the importance of Pakistan in the fight against militancy.

"The same terrorists who murder innocent civilians in Karachi and Islamabad are also plotting new attacks against the United States and the nations of Europe," Bush said.

The United States engineered the return of Bhutto to Pakistan, a return that included amnesty on allegations of graft against Zardari and Bhutto. Retired Lt. Gen. Talat Masood, a political analyst who was a defense secretary under Bhutto, believes that the deal will guarantee Zardari as a U.S. ally.

"They can trust him because he is obliged to them," Masood said. "And he understands the power of the United States, both at the personal and national level."

But Masood and analysts here believe the United States is walking on a thin line if it increases the number of attacks on Pakistani soil. And Zardari risks becoming unpopular if he is not seen as sufficiently protective of Pakistani sovereignty.

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