The widower of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has been sworn in as Pakistan's president, formally returning the country to civilian rule nearly nine years after Pervez Musharraf seized power in a military coup. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad.
Asif Ali Zardari was sworn into office before a crowd that included dozens of Pakistan's political leaders, foreign dignitaries and the three children he fathered with Benazir Bhutto.
As he signed the presidential oath, the crowd erupted with cheers praising his deceased wife.
Hours later, the 53-year-old leader addressed his first news conference as president and took the unusual step of inviting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to join him.
Pakistan's relations with Afghanistan have been tense in the past few years because of the Taliban insurgency plaguing both countries. Relations recently worsened when the Afghan government accused Pakistan's security and intelligence agencies of plotting attacks inside Afghanistan including an assassination attempt against President Karzai.
Mr. Karzai said Mr. Zardari's election signaled a new era that gives him hope.
"I found in President Zardari a good will and vision not only for relations between the two countries but for the region - which I have seen for the first time in the leadership of this region," he said.
Mr. Zardari assumes office with the same expanded powers that former President Pervez Musharraf had bestowed on the presidency, but it is unclear how much influence the new president has over Pakistan's powerful military and intelligence agencies.
Nevertheless, the president said a civilian-led government that had a mandate from the people would be better able to conduct the war against terrorism.
"Yesterday's war may not have had the people behind it," Mr. Zardari said. "But today's war does have the people of Pakistan - in fact, it has the president of Pakistan, who himself is a victim of terrorism."
U.S. and NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan, and suspected U.S. missile attacks in Pakistan, are routinely blamed for killing innocent civilians. Mr. Karzai said ending strikes on civilians is essential to maintaining public support for the war.
"The war against terrorism will only be won if we have the people with us," he said. "There is no other way. Therefore, for us to have the people with us, we must avoid civilian casualties."
Mr. Zardari takes office at a time of increased international attention on the war in Afghanistan, and increased worry about Taliban and al-Qaida militants based in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. Within Pakistan, he faces daunting economic problems as well as a public that remains suspicious about the influence of billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Pakistan's military and government.
Asif Zardari said that, similar to most countries around the world, Pakistan would continue to accept foreign aid.
"As far as America is concerned - the fact that we are in the eye of the storm, I consider that an opportunity," he said. "I intend to take that and make it a strength. We intend to take the world with us in developing the future of Pakistan and changing the future of our neighbors also."
In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the United States looks forward to working with Mr. Zardari and the Pakistani government on counterterrorism.