- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Benazir Bhutto’s widower swept Pakistan’s presidential election Saturday, offering hope for stability to a nuclear-armed country feeling intense U.S. pressure to crack down on Islamic militants.

In a grim reminder of the problems awaiting Asif Ali Zardari, rescuers in Peshawar, the main city of the Taliban-plagued northwest, dug with their hands for survivors after at least 30 people were killed in a massive suicide bombing.

Officials and witnesses said a pickup truck packed with explosives demolished a security checkpoint on the edge of the city Saturday, killing at least 30 people, including five police officers, and injuring dozens more.

Already head of the main ruling party, Mr. Zardari becomes one of the most powerful civilian leaders in Pakistan’s turbulent 61-year history. Last month, he marshaled a coalition that forced stalwart U.S. ally Pervez Musharraf to quit as head of state.

However, he begins with limited good will within a population who recall his nickname, Mr. 10 Percent, for purported corruption during Mrs. Bhutto’s two terms in office as prime minister and who doubt his political vision and leadership skills.

He is also untested on the international stage, where he must deal with mounting Western concern over how Taliban and al Qaeda militants have nested in the tribal belt along the Afghan border.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she was looking forward to working with Mr. Zardari.

“I’ve been impressed by some of the things he has said about the challenges that Pakistan faces, about the centrality of fighting terrorism, about the fact that the terrorism fight is Pakistan’s fight and also his very strong words of friendship and alliance with the United States,” Miss Rice told reporters on a trip to North Africa.

Mr. Zardari made no mention of those topics as he savored his triumph over Mr. Musharraf, during whose reign he sat for years in jail on graft charges that never produced a conviction.

A beaming Mr. Zardari hugged and shook hands with supporters and well-wishers gathering for a dinner on Saturday in the gardens of the prime minister’s residence on a hill overlooking the capital.

In a brief speech, he rejected criticism that he would be a divisive leader and took a swipe at Mr. Musharraf.

“To those who would say that the Peoples Party or the presidency would be controversial under our guardianship, under our stewardship, I would say listen to democracy,” he said.

Echoing one of Mrs. Bhutto’s favorite slogans, he called democracy “the best revenge” against military rulers.

Mr. Zardari has surprised many with his ability to concentrate power since his wife was assassinated in a December gun-and-bomb attack blamed on Taliban militants and he inherited her party’s leadership.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s party abandoned the coalition and switched to the opposition last month. But Mr. Zardari quickly won support from smaller parties, suggesting he could provide some stability as the country faces soaring inflation, power shortages and widening trade and budget deficits.

Official results gave Mr. Zardari more than two-thirds of the votes - two opponents sharing the rest - setting the stage for him to be sworn in within days.

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