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Little Pakistani Opposition to Cooperation with US - 2001-09-25

Last week Pakistan's president, General Pervez Musharraf, pledged his country's support to the international effort to bring alleged terrorist Osama Bin Laden and members of his al-Qaida organization to justice. President Bush says they are the prime suspects in the terrorist attacks that killed more than 6,000 people in the United States earlier this month.

Many analysts say, contrary to expectations, General Musharraf's pledge to support the campaign against Osama Bin Laden and his organization has not encountered much opposition in Pakistan so far.

Demonstrators spilled out into the streets of Islamabad last Friday to protest General Musharraf's decision to back the U.S. effort against Osama Bin Laden, were certainly vocal in their opposition to his policy, but they were also peaceful.

Leaders of the protests who represent religious parties aligned with the Taleban had predicted a turnout of hundreds of thousands of protesters, and possible violence. Four people were killed in protests in the southern port city of Karachi, but the disturbances did not spread to the rest of the country. Some Pakistani political analysts like retired General Talat Masood, who now writes a newspaper column, say the religious leaders have misjudged the public mood in Pakistan.

"I think it will hold. By and large these leaders, even if they oppose General Musharraf, I think they are doing mostly posturing," Mr. Masood says. "Their vested interests in some cases are hurt and also their sources of financial support, and so they are raising noises. That is why they are making these noises so they are not really ideologically motivated. But I must caution here if there is a lot of collateral damage in Afghanistan and civilians are hit, then there is definitely the possibility that passions would be aroused and these political, religious parties would like to exploit that situation, but I think the U.S. and the coalition would be cognizant of that."

Religious inspired violence is something that scares many Pakistanis. In 1977 the religious Jamaat-e-Islami party led bloody street protests that helped to bring down the government of then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and usher in a military government.

Some mainstream political leaders, like Fakhar Imam who leads a breakaway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, say they are worried that demonstrations could get larger if Pakistanis feel threatened by the presence of foreign troops in their country. "Well the biggest fear could be that if [religious parties] feel that Pakistan was just providing facilities, a lot of foreign troops were to be seen and that sort of thing there could be bigger demonstrations," Mr. Imam says. "I would not say it could lead to any kind of perhaps civil war but there would be fairly large demonstrations and disturbances. Hopefully it would not lead to any kind of bloody affair, but those are the kinds of things that should be kept in mind."

Some analysts point out that religious parties in Pakistan have never done well at the ballot box, gaining no more than about two percent of the vote in the last few national elections. Rasul Bakhsh Rais, the Director of the Area Studies Center at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad says many Pakistanis are weary of the sectarian violence that some religious parties promote. He adds many Pakistanis would welcome a crackdown on extremist elements within the Taleban because he says they are behind some of the violence plaguing Pakistan.

"The majority, the overwhelming majority of the people in Pakistan have seen terrorism tearing Pakistani society apart," Mr. Rais says. "I am talking about ethnic terrorism in Karachi, I am talking about sectarian and religious terrorism in Pakistan and sectarian and religious terrorists have links with the Taleban. People are fed up with that and they see an opportunity in this war that at least Pakistani society will be cleaned up."

But Rasul Bakhsh Rais and other analysts also caution that Pakistanis will not support what he and others call the establishment of a puppet regime in Afghanistan, made up of elements hostile to Pakistan. That, he and others say, could upset Pakistanis who now support the fight against terrorism, and result in a backlash inside Pakistan.