BIRMINGHAM, England — Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari wrapped up his to Britain by addressing a political rally Saturday, facing criticism and protesters for touring overseas as floods killed more than 1,500 people in his country.
One heckler threw a shoe at Zardari during the event, missing the president, while outside the convention center police cordoned off more than 100 protesters.Zardari told supporters his trip to Britain had been a success, and that he had raised tens of thousands of pounds for flood victims at home. Some 2,000 people crowded into the Birmingham convention center to listen to the visiting leader and other speakers from his Pakistan People's Party.
Facing domestic criticism for his trip during a time that his nation battles deadly floods, the Pakistani president's U.K. trip had also been fraught because it came so soon after British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Pakistan of exporting terror. The remarks outraged many Pakistanis and caused a diplomatic row, in part because they were made during Cameron's visit to India, Pakistan's nuclear rival.
"We have a good relationship with the British government and the problem has been resolved with the help of British Pakistani MPs (lawmakers,)" he said Saturday at the rally where posters of his slain wife, Former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, covered the walls. He was flanked by his daughter, Asifa, who wore a white head scarf.
Some protesters raised placards that read "U.S.A. out of Pakistan and Afghanistan." Many Pakistanis are angry about U.S.-led forces within Pakistan and increasing military operations in the frontier and tribal border areas.
"Too many Pakistani civilians have lost their lives because of this foreign-led war," said a protester who identified himself as Iqbal Najid, 32.
The Telegraph reports that the shoes aimed at Zardari came from an elderly man:
Mr Zardari, who is under criticism for visiting Britain while Pakistan is suffering from devastating floods, was in the middle of a speech when an elderly man in the 1,000 strong crowd hurled both shoes at him. The gesture is considered a traditional insult in Islam. An unidentified man was later ejected by police and security officials from the meeting...
Earlier in the day Zardari's son and co-chairman of the PPP, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, appealed for donations to help Pakistani flood victims in London.
Many had expected Zardari's son to join him at the rally and use the occasion to launch his political career, but the 21-year-old angrily rejected such speculation. Instead, he only appeared before the media briefly at Pakistan's High Commission in London, where he accepted donations for flood victims and defended his father's trip abroad during the disaster.
"My father's doing all that he can to aid the people of Pakistan. His personal presence in Pakistan could not have done there what he did here," Bhutto Zardari told The Associated Press.
Pakistani officials estimate that as many as 13 million people have been affected in the floods and some 1,500 have died. More rain is expected in the coming days as the bloated Kabul River surged into Pakistan's northwest.
"This is not a time to play politics. We need to do what is necessary to help our brothers and sisters in Pakistan," Bhutto Zardari added.
Although his father told the AP on Friday it was only a matter of time before his son carried on the family's political dynasty, Bhutto Zardari became irritated at reporters' suggestions that he was using his father's visit for his political gain and said he never intended to join the rally.
"I will not launch my political career until I complete my education – as I promised my mother," he said. Benazir Bhutto was assassinated at a political rally in late 2007. Her father, the founder of PPP, was hanged in 1979.
Bhutto Zardari said he would focus on raising money for flood victims in Britain and had no plans to travel to Pakistan soon. Still, many party supporters at the rally Saturday were more interested in talking about the young Oxford graduate than about his father.
"We want Bilawal to pick up where his mother left off," said Samina Mohammed, 25. "He can give us the best hope for this country."
Some have also speculated Bhutto's two daughters – one is a rap artist – could also enter politics like their mother.
Plagued by allegations of corruption and money laundering, Zardari hasn't enjoyed the same support as his slain wife or other members of the Bhutto clan.
In an interview with the AP, Zardari defended his trip, saying Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani had been dealing with the floods. Prior to his British visit, Zardari was in France where he visited a family chateau and met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Pakistani president also rejected criticism that his country was "exporting terror," saying that it was terrorists who killed his wife and who were terrorizing his country. Some 2,500 Pakistani security officials have been killed in battles with militants over the years, and many more civilians have been killed in attacks. On Saturday, the militant Taliban claimed responsibility for the killing of eight foreign aid workers in neighboring Afghanistan.
Analysts predict Zardari's PPP will suffer during the next national elections in 2013 because of Zardari's low approval ratings and the severe challenges currently facing the country.
Nearly 10,000 members of the party live in Europe, most of them in Britain.
Pakistan is one of Britain's most important allies in fighting terrorism. Nearly 1 million people of Pakistani origin live in Britain, and Pakistani intelligence has been crucial in several terror investigations, including the 2005 suicide attacks that killed 52 London commuters and a 2006 trans-Atlantic airliner plot. The ringleader of the 2005 suicide bombings in London and several others reportedly received terror training in Pakistan.
Zardari has headed a coalition government since unseating Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The ex-military leader was in power-sharing talks with Bhutto shortly before her assassination at a political rally in December 2007.
He leaves for Syria on Sunday.