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Earthquake Rattles Political Landscape in Pakistan

The massive response to the Kashmir earthquake has changed political relationships in Pakistan. The United States and Kashmir's Islamic parties are gaining friends, while President Pervez Musharraf and his allies are suffering in popularity.

October's earthquake killed an estimated 80,000 people and leveled towns and villages across northern Pakistan.

Social commentators say the massive quake also upended the political landscape. The public is questioning Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf's handling of the crisis, which many victims complained was slow.

On the other hand, outsiders, including the United States, are seeing an unexpected spike in popularity.

In Muzaffarabad, just 15 kilometers from the quake's epicenter, the struggle to rebuild has taken on added significance with various groups winning public support.

Every few minutes U.S. military helicopters fly over Muzaffarabad's congested streets.

In the city, more than 200 Americans soldiers run a field hospital. Army physicians say they have already treated nearly 2,000 patients.

Doctors say the hospital is doing more than just saving lives, it is also improving the U.S. reputation on the front lines of the war on terror. Elizabeth Clawson is one of the Army doctors at the camp.

"That is what the whole deal is about," said Ms. Clawson. "We are helping people and we are helping relationships with the Pakistani people. Everyone has been very grateful."

This time last year, Pakistanis told pollsters they trusted terrorist leader Osama bin Laden more than President Bush. And many Pakistanis have opposed their government's alliance with Washington in the war on terrorism.

But the high-profile U.S. relief effort is making a positive impression.

Inside the hospital, Abdul Razzaq is keeping his grandmother company as she recovers from surgery. He says the American doctors helped save her life after she was injured in the earthquake.

He says some people here are still anti-American, but he will never forget what they have done for his family. The Americans, he says, are helping Pakistan during the country's greatest hour of need.

But the United States is not alone in winning the hearts of quake victims.

On the other side of town, another relief operation is also under way, staffed by a very different group of volunteers.

A member of the Islamic group Hizbullah Mujahideen uses an old megaphone to offer food and shelter to weary quake victims.

The group runs a sprawling relief camp on the edge of Muzaffarabad. It is the largest of at least half a dozen operations run by known militant groups in the quake zone.

Naveed Hussein, one of the camp managers, says Hizbullah Mujahideen is helping thousands of people every day.

He says the camp already has over 400 tents and more are going up every day. He says the earthquake has given Hizbullah Mujahideen a chance to show how much it cares for this community, and what it can accomplish when all its volunteers swing into action.

Six months ago Kashmir's various militant groups appeared to be losing much of their support.

Since 1989, at least a dozen groups have fought to end India's control of two-thirds of Kashmir. But India and Pakistan have moved to ease tensions in the region and local residents seemed increasingly reluctant to embrace the militants' violent agenda.

But since the earthquake people say they have a newfound respect for the Islamic groups, who were among the first to respond with aid.

Even local authorities say the militants are a valuable and welcome resource.

Sardar Sikandar Hayat Khan is the highest-ranking official in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

"This is the special instance where the rival groups are working in the same city. They are working for the same cause today," said Mr. Khan.

As long as they keep helping, he says there are no plans to limit the militants' activities.

Analysts here say the Islamic groups, along with the United States, will likely continue to gain the public's confidence throughout the long recovery process.

But they say the opposite may be true for the country's leaders, especially President Pervez Musharraf.

The president, along with the military he commands, is coordinating nearly every aspect of the government's massive response.

Political commentator Talat Masood says the president is staking his reputation on the earthquake response. It is a dangerous strategy, and he warns it could backfire if the victims are not completely satisfied.

Many of the quake victims, most of whom live in isolated mountain communities that were cut off by landslides, have complained that aid was took too long to reach them.

"It is very difficult. The thing is, this is a catastrophe that even if the angels come they could not satisfy the people. So what has happened is you have further centralized the whole effort and that means you have centralized the blame as well," said Mr. Masood.

As a result, he says, conservative religious parties have had a field day criticizing Mr. Musharraf.

And as long as the president refuses to involve the opposition, Mr. Masood says he stands to lose more than he can possibly gain in Kashmir.

Seven weeks after the earthquake, he says the president appears increasingly unpopular, while Islamic hard-liners and the United States have built up reservoirs of good will.