Pakistan's new president told lawmakers the nation will not tolerate violations of its sovereignty by "any power" in the name of fighting terrorism, a clear signal to the U.S. to avoid controversial cross-border strikes.
In his first address to Parliament, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain ex-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, also called Saturday for a committee to consider reducing presidential powers that had been enhanced under his predecessor, longtime U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf.
A series of suspected U.S. missile attacks and an American-led cross-border ground assault in Pakistan's volatile northwest have signaled Washington's impatience with Pakistani efforts to eliminate hide-outs of Taliban and al-Qaida militants implicated in attacks in neighboring Afghanistan.
But the U.S. strikes also have angered Pakistanis, and Zardari has faced some criticism for not being more outspoken against them. On Saturday, his voice rose as he tackled the subject.
"We will not tolerate the violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity by any power in the name of combating terrorism," said Zardari, who is expected to see President Bush in the next few days while leading a delegation to the United Nations.
Zardari, who easily won the presidency earlier this month after Musharraf quit under threat of impeachment, is considered generally pro-American. He warned Saturday that terrorism is a grave challenge to Pakistan and said the government should prevent the country's soil from being used as a base for terrorist attacks against other countries.
Hope for stability
Zardari's rise to the presidency has brought some hope for political stability in Pakistan after a year of turmoil that included emergency rule, Bhutto's assassination, a highly charged election, the collapse of a ruling coalition and Musharraf's resignation.
Though saddled with a reputation of being corrupt, Zardari could prove a powerful president partly because he also leads the party that controls the largest number of seats in Parliament.
Still, he has promised to respect the supremacy of Parliament. And during his speech, he asked for an all-parties committee to re-examine constitutional changes under Musharraf that gave the president powers including dissolving Parliament. Zardari called such powers "distortions."
"Let me assure you that the days of constitutional deviation and bypassing the Parliament while taking the decisions of national importance are over," he said, also noting, "Never before in the history of this country has a president stood here and given away his power."
The mere fact that Zardari fulfilled a constitutional duty to address a joint session of Parliament was symbolic: Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 military coup, did so just once to jeers from opposition lawmakers. Zardari, in contrast, faced a polite reception from a mostly friendly audience that often thumped tables in support.
Zardari expressed concern about Pakistan's convulsing economy and said the government must take steps to ensure food security amid soaring prices for staples.
He also paid glowing tributes to his wife, who was assassinated in a gun-and-suicide bomb attack in December after returning to Pakistan to lead the opposition against Musharraf.
"I wish she was addressing this Parliament today and not me," Zardari said.
Zardari has faced criticism for dragging his feet on promises to reinstate dozens of judges Musharraf ousted last year in a bid to avoid challenges to his rule.
Debate over judiciary
Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif — whose party came in second in parliamentary elections in February — left the ruling coalition last month after disagreements over how to reinstate the judges.
Though some justices have returned to work, including four who took oaths for the Supreme Court Saturday, Zardari has also pushed for legal changes that some say would weaken the judiciary.
Zardari stressed the importance of independent judges in his speech, but Sharif was unimpressed.
"I do not see any hope for the independence of the judiciary," he said.
Sharif and Zardari's falling out also involved disputes over Musharraf's future, including whether he should face treason charges. Sharif has pushed for punishment of the former army general, but Zardari has taken a softer tone.
Underscoring the threat of militancy in Pakistan, a suicide car bomber attacked an army convoy Saturday in the North Waziristan tribal region. Three civilians and three soldiers were killed, said Maj. Murad Khan, an army spokesman.
A separate roadside bomb ripped through another army convoy in the nearby South Waziristan region, killing two soldiers and wounding three, Khan said.
Although no one immediately claimed responsibility, the Pakistani Taliban have said they were behind a string of bombings in the past few weeks in revenge for army military offensives.