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Pakistan's Zardari says not leaving office

MYT 5:30:00 AM

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan's President Asif Ali has said leaving office is not an option and that no one has asked him to resign, responding to speculation that the powerful military wanted him to go.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari is seen during a meeting with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul (not pictured) in Istanbul in this November 1, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/Files

"No one has asked for it yet. If someone does, I'll tell you," Zardari, who appeared in good spirits after medical treatment in Dubai last month, said in a pre-recorded interview with one of the country's most popular television anchors.

The army, which sets security and foreign policies, has asked Pakistani civilian leaders to resign in the past and influenced judicial proceedings against them.

Zardari is facing his biggest political crisis since he took office in 2008 over an unsigned memo to the Pentagon that sought U.S. help in reining in Pakistan's generals, who have ruled the nation for more than half of its history.

Businessman Mansoor Ijaz, writing in a column in the Financial Times, said a senior Pakistani diplomat had asked that the memo be delivered.

Ijaz later identified the diplomat as Husain Haqqani, Pakistan's then ambassador in Washington and a close Zardari aide.

Haqqani denies any involvement, and no evidence has emerged that the military was plotting a coup.

The Supreme Court has ordered an investigation into the matter, which could further threaten Pakistan's weak civilian government, especially if a link is established between the memo and Zardari.

STEPPING DOWN NOT AN OPTION

The controversy highlighted tensions between civilian governments and the military that have bedeviled the nuclear-armed South Asian nation for almost its entire existence, and sparked rumours that the military may force Zardari out.

It has also put pressure on already tense ties with the United States, which needs Islamabad's help in efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and wants Pakistan's leaders to focus on pressing problems such as militancy and a struggling economy.

Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, who has vowed to keep the military out of Pakistan's stormy politics, has dismissed coup rumours as speculation and said the army supported democracy.

Military sources have told Reuters the army is fed up with Zardari and wants him out of office, but through legal means.

Although his position is largely ceremonial, Zardari wields considerable influence as leader of the ruling party and any forced departure would be a humiliation for the civilian leadership and could throw the country into turmoil.

When asked in the interview broadcast Saturday if "escape" was an option for him, Zardari replied: "Why should it be?"

Zardari was elected in 2008 on the back of a sympathy vote after his charismatic wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated shortly after returning from self-imposed exile.

Zardari has largely failed to deliver since then, dismissed as an uncaring playboy - another feudal landlord who ignored the needs of the masses - while Pakistan lurched from crisis to crisis, from crippling power cuts to suicide bombings.

He has always appeared to lack the political resolve to push through reforms that could help Pakistan's fragile economy and make it less dependent on foreign aid.

Criminal cases could also haunt Zardari, who earned the title "Mr. 10 Percent" while Bhutto was in power, based on allegations he demanded kickbacks on state contracts.

Zardari has also been accused of murder and has spent 11 years in jail on corruption charges. He was never convicted and denies any wrongdoing.

(Editing by Michael Georgy and Louise Ireland)

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