Pakistani police officers stand guard outside the administration office in Swat, Pakistan on Tuesday, June 24, 2008. Militants attacked a military convoy in the Swat Valley Tuesday, drawing retaliatory fire from troops that killed one attacker, a local army spokesman said on condition of anonymity. (AP Photo/Sherin Zada)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - The real question in Pakistan's presidential election is not who the winner will be but whether the new leader will be any more successful than his predecessor in tackling extremism and economic malaise.
Asif Ali Zardari, head of the ruling Pakistan People's Party and widower of two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, will face off against two lightly regarded opponents when legislators meet Saturday to choose a president.
The winner will replace former military strongman Pervez Musharraf, who resigned under pressure last month.
"It will be an easy victory for Asif Ali Zardari as we have the support of more than 400 lawmakers out of about 700," People's Party spokesman Farhatullah Babar told The Associated Press.
The party was part of a coalition that swept to power in February parliamentary elections on a mostly anti-Musharraf platform, so no major changes in policy are expected, even though a key partner has defected to spearhead the opposition.
Zardari, generally considered pro-Western, also isn't expected to change Pakistan's commitment to be an ally in the U.S. war on terrorism, despite a bold cross-border U.S.-led raid that left at least 15 people dead in the country's largely lawless tribal belt along the Afghan frontier.
The raid Wednesday sparked widespread condemnation of what was seen as an attack on the country's sovereignty.
In news likely to stoke more anger, intelligence officials said a missile strike was suspected in a blast Thursday that killed at least four people in North Waziristan, part of the tribal belt where Osama bin Laden and his deputy are thought to be hiding. Similar strikes in the past have been blamed on the U.S.
On Friday, an explosion possibly caused by a missile strike killed five suspected foreign militants near the Afghan border, two Pakistani intelligence officials said, citing local informers.
The officials asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Zardari criticized Wednesday's raid, the first known foreign ground assault inside Pakistan against a suspected Taliban haven. But he also expressed sympathy for the U.S. and other countries that have been hit by terrorist attacks, saying Pakistan also is suffering from extremist violence.
His reaction underscores the fine line that Pakistan's leaders must walk amid dependence on U.S. financial aid: Crack down on beds of Islamic extremism even as many Pakistanis blame the strategic alliance for fueling violence by Islamic militants in their country. The People's Party has tried to convince Pakistanis they cannot duck the fight.
Previous cross-border attacks by U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan have sparked brief public backlashes that quickly died down. It was unclear whether the use of ground forces this time will create more furor beyond legislative resolutions and a strong letter of protest to Washington.
But the fact that the raid was apparently followed a day later by an airstrike could indicate that U.S. forces are getting more aggressive in operations on the Pakistan side of the border with Afghanistan.
American officials say destroying militant sanctuaries in Pakistani tribal regions is critical to ending the growing Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.
Wednesday's raid has cut into support for Zardari's presidential bid.
The leader of a group of lawmakers from the tribal areas along the Afghan border, Munir Khan Orakzai, said they would not vote for Zardari, calling the attack evidence that the new government has failed to bring peace to their region.
Zafar Ali Shah, a lawmaker from the chief opposition party of ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif, said Pakistan should tell America that "Enough is enough, and we will not help you if you kill our people.
"The American war against terrorism has become a war against Pakistan," he said.
The People's Party spokesman said Zardari condemned Wednesday's attack and wanted compensation paid to the victims.
"We have been very clear that any action on this side of the border must be taken by the Pakistani forces themselves," Babar said. "It is very embarrassing for the government. The people will start blaming the government of Pakistan."
Analysts said that despite public anger, Pakistan is too economically dependent on the billions of dollars in aid it has received from Washington to risk cutting ties.
A wave of violence has hit Pakistan in recent weeks, including suicide attacks that Pakistani Taliban leaders have called revenge for the government's military offensives in the Bajur tribal region and the Swat Valley on the restive border with Afghanistan. The military says clashes in the region have killed dozens of militants in recent days.