Murder charge strains U.S.-Pakistan relations

LAHORE, Pakistan — The fatal shooting of two Pakistani men by a U.S. Embassy official last month was "cold-blooded murder" and not self-defense, police investigators in Pakistan's second largest city said Friday, escalating a diplomatic crisis that threatens to rupture relations between the U.S. and a vital ally in the war on terrorism.

With Pakistani law enforcement authorities set on a course to try Raymond Davis on murder charges, the 36-year-old American's best hope now lies with his claim of diplomatic immunity — an assertion that so far the federal government has avoided affirming.

Already perceived by Pakistanis as weak and corrupt, the government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, risks igniting massive waves of unrest if it grants Davis immunity and allows his release. Hardline clerics and Islamist religious parties have promised to organize throngs of demonstrators if Davis is freed, and Zardari's government may not be able to survive a major uprising.

But Davis' continued incarceration has incensed the Obama administration, which has signaled to Pakistani authorities that diplomatic dialogue between the two countries could be curbed by the situation. Davis has spent 16 days in custody as of Friday, and a judge has ordered him detained for 14 more days while prosecutors build a case.

Members of Congress have also suggested that billions of dollars in economic and military aid that the U.S. has pledged to Pakistan could be suspended.

At stake is Washington's relationship with an important but difficult ally that the U.S. needs to help root out al-Qaida and Taliban leaders from their strongholds in the country's volatile northwest, and to help bring an end to the war against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, now in its 10th year.

Progress in the relationship has been impeded by the negative image many Pakistanis have of the U.S., who see America as an arrogant superpower bent on exploiting their country to suit Washington's interests. The Jan. 27 shooting of two Pakistani men by Davis gave anti-U.S. leaders and commentators in Pakistan another cause with which to stoke more anti-American fervor.