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Monday, April 7

If war in Iraq drags on, U.S.-Pakistan relations may sour

By Raju Chebium | GNS

WASHINGTON - Relations between the United States and its key ally in the anti-terrorism campaign, Pakistan, could suffer if more civilians are killed in the war with Iraq, analysts say.

The war is universally unpopular in Pakistan, a Muslim nation of 140 million people, as it is in the rest of the Muslim world. The biggest demonstration since the fighting began March 19 involved 150,000 protesters in Peshawar, a city on the northwest border where the al-Qaida terror network enjoys considerable support. Since that March 31 protest, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in the central Pakistani city of Multan, close to the border with India, on Friday.

The Pakistani government has criticized the war and refused to join the coalition allied with the United States.

Analysts fear protesters could vent anti-U.S. anger on President Pervez Musharraf for ordering Pakistani forces to hunt down al-Qaida members who sneaked in from neighboring Afghanistan. The worst-case scenario: Musharraf is ousted and a new leader refuses to help the United States.

"If the war is over within a matter of weeks with not too many civilian casualties, then I would not expect the damage to be too severe,'' Anatol Lieven, a terrorism expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of U.S.-Pakistan relations. "The longer the war goes on, the more bravely Iraqi forces resist, the more humiliating it becomes for people elsewhere in the Muslim world to ... help America.''

Teresita Schaeffer, a former State Department official and South Asia expert at The Center for Strategic & International Studies, said the U.S. war in Afghanistan to weed out the Taliban regime was very unpopular in Pakistan. But most public demonstrations then attracted 10,000 people or fewer.

In a sign that anti-U.S. feeling has exploded since the start of the Iraq war, demonstrations now regularly attract 100,000 people or more, she said.

Since fall 2001, Pakistani forces have captured nearly 500 al-Qaida operatives, according to the State Department. On March 1, they nabbed Khalid Sheik Mohammad, considered the third-highest ranking member of the terror network blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, suburban Washington and southwest Pennsylvania.

Musharraf is already unpopular for extending such help. That unpopularity could strengthen into resentment, analysts say, as images of dead Iraqi civilians appear on television nearly daily and the Muslim world increasingly views the war as an attack on Islam.

Analysts add that the Muslim world's resentment of the United States for attacking Iraq will strengthen as fighting drags on. Pakistani and U.S. officials are meeting April 11 in Washington to discuss terrorism and other issues. The Pakistani embassy said the meetings were routine and unrelated to the opposition to the war. About 200,000 people of Pakistani descent live in the United States, a majority in large metro areas.

Several Pakistani business groups are calling for boycotts of American and British products.

Religious political parties are gaining ground in the Pakistani parliament, threatening Musharraf's hold on power, said Najam Sethi, editor of the independent weekly newspaper Friday Times in Lahore.

"If you held a poll today, more people would be more inclined to vote for religious parties than six months ago,'' he said in a telephone interview.

As the war lengthens, Musharraf will have a very tough time convincing his people that helping the United States is in Pakistan's best economic interests, analysts say.

For the moment, President Bush is rewarding Pakistan: His $75 billion request to pay for the Iraq war includes $1.5 billion for various partners in the fight against terrorism with the bulk of the aid going to Pakistan.Asad Hayauddin, spokesman for the Pakistani embassy in Washington, said he doesn't envision worsening relations with the United States.

"Our sympathies are with the people of Iraq, not the government of Iraq,'' he said. "The United States understands Pakistan's position.''

Meanwhile, tensions between Pakistan and neighboring India are once again on the rise, causing U.S. officials to watch South Asia apprehensively. If war erupts between the nuclear-armed neighbors, the United States and other members of the United Nations could have to intervene to prevent the world's first nuclear conflict.

India blames last month's deaths of 24 people in the disputed Kashmir region on Pakistani-sponsored Islamic militants. India has long maintained that Pakistan harbors terrorists. India and Pakistan test-fired nuclear-capable missiles late last month, raising fears they might mobilize their armies as they did last year.

Experts caution that the Kashmir conflict could become a headache for the world at large.

After visiting South Asia in February, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., urged the White House to be more involved in defusing the crisis, which was the heart of two of three wars India and Pakistan have fought since both countries gained independence from England in 1947. Rockefeller is a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.

Hayauddin said Pakistan always has wanted the United States to mediate.

"The United States is the only country in the unique position to influence both countries,'' he said.

But India has steadfastly opposed outside intervention.