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Pakistan army chief mused takeover: leaked cables

WASHINGTON — Pakistan’s army chief mused about forcing out civilian President Asif Ali Zardari who has made preparations for a coup or assassination, leaked US diplomatic cables said Tuesday.

The latest tranche of memos, obtained by whistleblower site WikiLeaks and reported by The New York Times and The Guardian, also showed the United States was more concerned than it let on publicly about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

General Ashfaq Kayani, chief of Pakistan’s powerful military, told the US ambassador during a March 2009 meeting that he “might, however reluctantly,” pressure Zardari to resign, according to a cable cited by the Times.

Kayani was quoted as saying that he might support Asfandyar Wali Khan, leader of the Awami National League Party, as the new president — not Zardari’s arch-nemesis Nawaz Sharif.

In another cable quoted by both newspapers, US Vice President Joe Biden recounted to Britain’s then prime minister Gordon Brown a conversation with Zardari last year.

Zardari told him that Kayani and the Inter-Services Intelligence agency “will take me out,” according to the cable. The Guardian said the cables also showed that Zardari has made extensive preparations in case he is killed.

Zardari is the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. He took power in 2008, returning Pakistan to civilian leadership after nearly a decade under military ruler Pervez Musharraf.

Tensions between Zardari and the army are no secret, and Pakistan often witnesses coup rumors.

After Kayani met in September with Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the now-exiled Musharraf quipped: “I can assure you they were not discussing the weather.”

The cables also laid bare US frustrations at what officials see as Pakistan’s refusal to cut off ties with extremists such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for carrying out the bloody 2008 siege of Mumbai.

“There is no chance that Pakistan will view enhanced assistance levels in any field as sufficient compensation for abandoning support for these groups, which it sees as an important part of its national security apparatus against India,” Ambassador Anne Patterson said in a cable quoted by the Times.

The cables show that the United States was mindful of Pakistani sensitivities about cooperation — both on military action and on Islamabad’s prized nuclear arsenal.

One memo quoted by the Times said that 12 US Special Operations soldiers had deployed with Pakistani troops near the Afghan border.

The cables also touch on allegations of extrajudicial killings by Pakistani forces, according to the Times.

A cable last year suggested there was credible evidence that the Pakistani army or paramilitary forces killed some detainees after an offensive against Taliban insurgents in lawless northwestern regions.

The embassy said that news of killings should not be leaked to the press, for fear of offending the Pakistani army. However, this year the United States said it would cut off support for some Pakistani units following the release of a video that appeared to show extrajudicial killings.

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