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Official: Pakistan snubs US envoy's request to visit

Pakistan has told U.S. special envoy Marc Grossman that it is "not possible at the moment" for him to visit the country, a senior government official said.
/ Source: news services

Pakistan has told U.S. special envoy Marc Grossman that it is "not possible at the moment" for him to visit the country, a senior government official told Reuters Wednesday, highlighting the increased tensions between the uneasy allies.

He did not elaborate on the reason for refusing Grossman's request to visit.

Relations between Islamabad and Washington plunged to the lowest point in years when a NATO cross-border air attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on Nov. 26. That followed the controversial U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

"Ambassador Grossman asked to visit Pakistan, but we conveyed to him that it was not possible at the moment," a senior government official, who declined to be named, told Reuters.

Troubled U.S.-Pakistan ties threaten to set back peace efforts in neighboring Afghanistan, where the United States is gradually withdrawing troops after a decade of war.

Grossman is due to visit Afghanistan and Qatar this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last Wednesday.

Relations between Pakistan's civilian leadership and military are also at their worst since a 1999 coup following reports of a disputed memo allegedly from President Asif Ali Zardari's government seeking U.S. help in reining in Pakistan's powerful generals.

No coup so far
But already the crisis has underlined how Pakistan has changed in recent years: The military can no longer simply march in and seize power as it has done three times over the last six decades.

As a result, opportunities remain for both sides to back down. The civilian government may be able to ride it out until elections now seen likely in late summer.

"If this were the '90s, there would have been a coup a year ago," Moeed Yusuf, of the Washington-based United States Institute of Peace, told The Associated Press.

A watchful media poised to hound the generals — and a populace under few illusions that the top brass can be saviors after failing so many times before — seem to have acted as a brake on any designs by the army.

Opposition parties are happy to see the government weakened. But the country's largest party, that of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, is no fan of the army and might not want to come to power on the shoulders of a military intervention.

"The status quo remains, despite all the institutions coming to a head. Every scenario you paint, there will be chaos and no one benefits," Yusuf said.

Last week, coup jitters spread after the army issued an unusual warning of "grievous consequences" for the country over a scandal involving an unsigned memo sent last year to Washington asking for U.S. help in preventing a coup in the aftermath of the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

But pundits and government critics alike have been predicting the imminent fall of either Zardari, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani or the government they head for much of the past four years. Each time, they have been proven wrong.

Crunch date
The next crunch date will be Thursday, when Gilani has been summoned to appear before the Supreme Court to explain why he has not ordered the attorney general to reopen a corruption case dating back years against his boss, Zardari.

Zardari and his late wife, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, were found guilty in absentia in a Swiss court in 2003 of laundering millions of dollars in kickbacks when they were in government.

They appealed, and Swiss authorities abandoned the case in 2008 at the request of the Pakistani government. The case was among thousands dropped as a result of an amnesty that allowed Bhutto to return from exile and contest elections in 2008.

Supporters of the deal said most of the cases were politically motivated and that "reconciliation" was needed to allow the country to move forward after years of cutthroat politics. The Supreme Court struck down the amnesty in 2009, and the standoff has simmered since then.

Gilani is being asked to write to Swiss authorities and request that they reopen the case against Zardari.

The government has resisted doing this for the past two years, saying the president has immunity from prosecution while in office.

If the court convicts Gilani of contempt, he could serve up to six months in prison and be disqualified from holding office. Faced with the prospect of time behind bars, Gilani may now agree to send a letter.

The most likely option, though, is that Gilani will make a conciliatory speech and play for time, dragging the process out. Zardari has publicly said he would never send a letter to Geneva because it would disrespect the memory of his wife, who was killed by Islamist militants in 2007.

If Gilani resigns or is forced to stand down by the court, the ruling party will elect another prime minister from the loyalists that stack the benches in the parliament.