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Pakistan's President Vows To Defend Democracy Despite Violence

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) -- A suicide bomber has blown himself up outside a Shi'ite Muslim hall in the Pakistani part of disputed Kashmir, killing at least five people, police said.

The blast in Muzaffarabad city demonstrated the challenges facing U.S. ally Pakistan, which is struggling against Al-Qaeda-linked militants and is under pressure from Washington to help stabilize Afghanistan, where a Taliban insurgency is raging.

The explosion went off at the end of a procession for Ashura, the Shi'ite calendar's biggest event. A witness said he saw body parts of the bomber on the street. At least 30 people were wounded, police said.

Security has been increased across the country for Ashura, a flashpoint for attacks by Sunni militants in recent years.

Earlier today, President Asif Ali Zardari said he would defend democracy in Pakistan. He also dismissed speculation he might not survive politically.

Speaking on the second anniversary of the assassination of his wife, former premier Benazir Bhutto, Zardari suggested he had no intention of resigning after the possibility of corruption charges against his close aides weakened him.

"If anyone casts an evil eye on democracy, we will gouge out their eyes," he told supporters in Bhutto's hometown of Naudero.

Violence has intensified since July 2007, when the army cleared out militants from a radical mosque in Islamabad.

Victims have included Bhutto, who was killed after returning home from self-imposed exile.

In the Kashmir incident, policeman Adnan Khan, who was on duty outside the hall, said the explosion was a suicide bombing.

"The bomber was with a small procession that was coming towards the Imambargah [hall] and when he saw people being searched, he set off his explosives," he told Reuters.

A blast also occurred at the end of a similar procession in Pakistan's commercial capital Karachi, wounding 15 people, police said.

In the Kurram region near the Afghan border, a district official and five relatives were killed when militants blew up his house, police said.

Breathing Space For Zardari?

Zardari is unpopular and the militants show no sign of wavering in their bid to topple the government. But many Pakistanis and the military are united in the view that the insurgency must be crushed.

The army had not been cracking down on militants, which it had supported in the fight against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Afghan Taliban are also seen as leverage against the influence of enemy India in Afghanistan.

But the Pakistani Taliban turned their guns on their former army patrons. And their harsh interpretation of Islamic rule -- including public whippings and hangings -- angered Pakistanis.

The United States, grappling with an insurgency in Afghanistan, is pushing Pakistan hard to root out militants who plot attacks inside Afghanistan, and has also intensified pilotless drone attacks in northwest Pakistan.

The death toll in the latest drone raid, carried out on Saturday evening in the militant hub of North Waziristan, rose to 13 on Sunday, security officials said.

Pakistan officially objects to the drone strikes, saying they violate its sovereignty and the civilian casualties they sometimes inflict inflame public anger.

U.S. officials say the strikes are carried out under an agreement with Pakistan that allows its leaders to decry them in public.