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US-Pakistan Relationship Seen as Real Target of Bombing

The terrorist attack that killed 60 people Saturday in Pakistan struck the Marriott hotel, part of an American-based chain. As VOA Correspondent Gary Thomas reports, many analysts believe the real target of the attack were not Western interests, but Pakistani.

As one of only two top-flight hotels in Pakistan's capital the Islamabad Marriott was not only the temporary lodging of choice for many visiting foreigners, but a status symbol for Pakistan's political, business, and military elite.

Officials met contacts and supplicants in the coffee shop, intelligence agents prowled the lobby, and affluent parents threw lavish wedding receptions in the hotel banquet halls.

RAND Corporation Pakistan analyst Christine Fair says attacking the Marriott was a clear message from the terrorists to the government of new President Asif Ali Zardari.

"As much as terrifying the Westerners who love to ensconce themselves in that hotel, I really see the target of this being Pakistan's elite, and trying to sharpen the debate about abandoning the U.S. and in fact trying to drive the Pakistani elite into making that decision," said Fair.

The United States has been pushing Pakistan to get tough with Islamic militants who use the tribal areas along the Afghan border to launch attacks on U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. The United States nurtured the counter-terrorism relationship first with the former military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, and seeks to continue it under the new government of President Zardari.

But the U.S.-counterterrorism effort is not popular in Pakistan. The situation has become more tense with increased U.S. Predator drone missile strikes at suspected al-Qaida and Taliban safe havens in Pakistan, and reports of at least one incursion by U.S. troops into Pakistan in pursuit of the militants.

Local Pakistani militants, who are sympathetic to al-Qaida but not necessarily part of it, have increasingly stepped up attacks inside Pakistan to challenge the government.

At least some elements in the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, or ISI and the military are believed by analysts to be sympathetic to the militants. Christine Fair says that in attacking a Pakistani target the militants are biting the hand that once fed them.

"The Pakistanis can blame the Bush-Musharraf relationship for sort of setting the stage. But had they not been nurturing all these nut jobs for so many decades - not years, decades - there would not be these people to blow up their hotels. And they would not have this capacity that they have developed, not over two years but over three decades, to execute this kind of attack," added Fair.

A Pakistan analyst at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, Farzana Shaikh, says there is still intense debate about how deep those military-to-militant ties still are.

"There is a school of thought that believes that militant groups [who] once enjoyed the protection of sections of the military leadership, sections of the intelligence agencies, have now become autonomous and operate independently of their masters. There are others - certainly within the Bush administration - who feel and who believe and who are absolutely persuaded that there are still very close links between elements of Pakistan's intelligence agencies and militant groups," said Shaikh.

It is not clear if this attack and others will drive a wedge between Islamabad and Washington, as the militants want, or have the opposite effect of pushing them together. Christine Fair says much will depend on how Pakistanis' public perceptions turn in coming days and weeks.

"It is entirely possible that the militants will have miscalculated with this one. But it all depends on how the Pakistani media spins it. I mean, that is going to be really critical. It is going to depend on how the ISI plants articles in the Urdu media," continued Fair. "The battle for this is really going to be played out in the Pakistani media, and how the media shapers decide to craft and frame this message."

But analysts say the final arbiter of Pakistan's direction will not be President Zardari but - as it has so often been in the past - the army.