Pakistan president boasts gains in terror war

CHRIS BRUMMITT Associated Press Published:

ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Pakistan's president lauded his government's commitment to democracy and boasted of gains in the country's war on militants in a Saturday speech to lawmakers, many of whom hurled abuse at his leadership before walking out in protest.

Asif Ali Zardari was making his fifth address as president to the joint session, something he claimed was an achievement in itself given the country's turbulent political history. Few would have predicted the coalition government he headed would last that long when it took office in 2008.

"The world can see the march of democracy goes on," he said. "We are creating history, while a lot more needs to be done. We Pakistanis can be proud of our young democracy."

The government, like others before it, has barely made a dent in the economic and social problems facing the country, which relies heavily on foreign aid to survive. Mismanagement and corruption have been the hallmarks of his administration, most independent analysts say.

Even before Zardari opened his mouth, opposition leaders began hurling abuse at the government, occasionally disrupting his speech. "Stop looting!" ''Stop lying!" and "Whoever is America's friend is a traitor!" they chanted for a quarter of an hour before leaving.

Since taking office, Pakistan has struggled to defeat Islamist militants that are based in the northwest close to the Afghan border and have significant support at various levels of society. The army has launched offensives against them, but Zardari's government has been accused of not speaking up clearly against extremism.

"We will continue to show force against them," he said. "I believe our efforts have born fruit."

The country's relations have faltered with the United States over the last year after a series of incidents that inflamed anti-U.S. sentiment among many Pakistanis. Last November, Islamabad all but severed ties after U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border.

On Monday, the joint session will debate whether to re-engage with Washington.

"The year 2011 was a challenging year," he said. "We seek to engage meaningfully with the U.S. on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect."

The government has been widely accused of mishandling the economy, which is growing around 4 percent a year, not enough to create jobs for school graduates and far slower then neighboring India. High inflation, electricity and gas shortages have hammered the poor and middle class over the last four years.

Zardari claimed otherwise in his speech, saying exports were up and growth was picking up.

General elections are scheduled for early next year, but there has been speculation they may take place after the summer.

Zardari is also caught in a power struggle with Pakistan's powerful military -- traditionally at odds with his Pakistan People's Party -- as well as with a Supreme Court angered at his perceived flaunting of judicial authority.

But while his government may yet be forced to face new elections by the collapse of its coalition or even by a court order, a repeat of the military coups that have brought down previous troubled civilian governments as recently as the late 1990s, when then-army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf seized power, is considered unlikely.