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Anger at Musharraf extends to ally U.S.

Times Staff Writer

It takes almost no effort to find people who are angry with Pervez Musharraf on the streets of this bustling city. The Pakistani leader’s name comes up quickly in casual conversation, yoked with unprintable adjectives and harsh denunciations of the emergency rule he has imposed.

But dig just a little deeper and another target of resentment surfaces: Musharraf’s richest, staunchest and most powerful patron, the United States.

“We blame the U.S. directly for keeping us under the rule of the military,” said Arfan Ghani, a 54-year-old professor of architecture. Musharraf, who heads Pakistan’s army, is just “another dictator,” Ghani told an American reporter, “serving the interests of your country.”

Musharraf’s already abysmal popularity has reached a new low after he declared a state of emergency Nov. 3. But sinking alongside it is the public image of the United States, which many Pakistanis see as the primary force propping up an autocratic ruler.

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In spite of Washington’s repeated assurances that it wants to help restore democracy to Pakistan, there is a strong feeling here of disillusionment with what are seen as hollow promises, and even a bitter sense of betrayal.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the U.S. latched onto Musharraf as a key ally in its war on terrorism, many Pakistanis welcomed American interest and largesse, hoping the relationship would boost their aspirations to become a modern, prosperous, democratic society.

Six years later, the nation remains under the thumb of a military leader who seized power in a coup and refuses to announce when he will return Pakistan to civilian rule. Opposition parties remain in disarray and now are being harassed.

Yet the Bush administration has largely stood by Musharraf. While it chides him for decreeing emergency rule, it has refrained from imposing any real penalty, such as cutting the billions of dollars in aid that have flowed in, much of it straight into the military’s coffers.

U.S. officials have said plainly in the past that though they would like to see Pakistan become a democracy and would help in that effort, their first priority is to get Musharraf to crack down on Islamic militants.

Musharraf is now seen by many here as a stooge of the U.S. -- or “Busharraf,” as one formulation has it.

To many Pakistanis, America seems not to care about their wish to be rid of Musharraf. “People are saying, ‘You can’t have another eight years, because it’s time for you to go now. Let others develop this democracy,’ ” said Nayab Shami, an art curator in Lahore. “The U.S. has never supported the people. The U.S. has always supported the leaders.”

“This is a very anti-American country,” Shami added. “We’ve always been stabbed by Americans in the long run.”

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Relations between Washington and Islamabad have been vexed throughout the 60 years of Pakistan’s existence. Neither can stand the other at times, or approves of everything the other is doing. But each gets something out of the relationship.

For the U.S., Pakistan acted as a bulwark against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, especially after the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Now, Pakistan serves the same function against Islamic terrorists and Al Qaeda.

In return, Islamabad has received massive amounts of U.S. financial aid and advanced weaponry, a boon to the powerful Pakistani military establishment.

Opinions of the U.S. among ordinary Pakistanis have always run the gamut, from those who despise it as the Great Satan bent on destroying the Muslim world to those who send their children to expensive private American universities.

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Cynicism is increasingly part of the mix. Unwavering U.S. support for Musharraf in spite of his autocratic rule, and other actions such as the invasion of Iraq, make Washington’s lofty rhetoric hard to swallow.

“They have no right to talk about democracy at all,” Maria Zafar, 22, said with a scathing laugh.

Since the state of emergency was declared, U.S. diplomats in Pakistan have been vocal in criticizing the move, even if there is no threat of sanctions from Washington. Some Pakistanis still see a role for the U.S. to play in putting their country back on the right path.

“It is time now that it stood on the side of democracy and stopped working with an autocrat whose only objective seems to be to preserve his own rule at any cost, regardless of what happens to his country and its people,” said an editorial in The News, an English-language daily.

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Whether that means throwing U.S. support behind one of Musharraf’s rivals, such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is not clear. Plenty of Pakistanis may resent the United States’ decision to back Musharraf, but they do not necessarily have alternatives in mind.

Just as common these days is a simple plea for Washington to be quiet. After decades of U.S. “interference” in Pakistan’s affairs, the time has come for the U.S. to stand aside and let Pakistanis sort out their own problems, many residents say.

“We don’t need America,” said Mohammed Ayub, 40, as he sat taking orders outside his roadside restaurant near Lahore’s Old City. “This is my house, and I can manage it better.”

henry.chu@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Laura King in Islamabad contributed to this report.


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