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Bilawal Bhutto Zardari set to become Pakistan’s new foreign minister

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is expected to be named foreign minister in Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s coalition government with Hina Rabbani Khar as his deputy, people familiar with developments said on Monday.

The appointments are part of the complicated negotiations between Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party and the PPP for sharing of key portfolios. While the PML-N is expected to retain crucial portfolios such as finance, defence and interior, the foreign and human rights ministries will go to the PPP, the people cited above said.

Bilawal was reportedly reluctant to take on the foreign affairs portfolio as he believed it could affect his work as chairman of the PPP, but the thinking within the party’s inner circles was that he should become the minister with Khar, a former foreign minister, as his deputy, the people said.

Under this formula, Bilawal would be expected to look after the more important aspects of the job, such as interacting with high-profile foreign visitors, while the day-to-day functioning of the Foreign Office would be handled by Khar, the people added.

Khar served as Pakistan’s foreign minister during 2011-2013, and was the youngest person and the first woman to hold the post. Khar was 33 years old when she became foreign minister in former premier Yousaf Raza Gilani’s government and, incidentally, Bilawal is expected to take on the position at the same age.

Khar also dealt with several crises during her stint, such as the fallout of the US special forces raid on Abbottabad that killed al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, the killing of two Pakistani intelligence operatives in Lahore by CIA contractor Raymond Davis, and the accidental killing of 28 Pakistani soldiers by US-led NATO forces at Salala in the Mohmand tribal district. All three incidents occurred during her first year in the job.

Members of Sharif’s cabinet were set to be sworn in on Monday night but the ceremony had to be deferred after President Arif Alvi, a loyalist of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, reportedly declined to administer the oaths. The Senate chairman, Sadiq Sanjarani, is expected to administer the oath to the cabinet members either on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Reports have suggested that Sharif plans to induct the cabinet members in two phases and it was not immediately clear whether Bilawal, the son of late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Ali Zardari, will be inducted in the first phase.

Pakistan’s next foreign minister will have the task of rebuilding strained ties with the US, which were hurt by Khan’s repeated allegations about the Biden administration being part of a “foreign conspiracy” to oust his government. Khan lost a trust vote in Pakistan’s Parliament on April 10.

The US has rubbished Khan’s allegations, which were based on a diplomatic cable sent by the former Pakistani ambassador to Washington after a meeting with a senior official of the US state department.

Sharif has sought “meaningful engagement” and the peaceful resolution of outstanding disputes, including the “core issue of Jammu & Kashmir”, in a letter sent to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi.

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