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Who Will Be The First To Blink?

Pakistan Teeters On The Edge While Bhutto, Musharraf Plot Out Next Moves

by Eric Margolis

Pakistan's grave political crisis is now entering the red zone. I've been in regular contact with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She calls the situation "grim." On Friday, she was put under house arrest, preventing her from leading a mass demonstration in Islamabad.

Bhutto tells me she may face another attempt to kill her. She accuses allies of President-General Pervez Musharraf of trying to assassinate her in the Oct. 18 bombing in Karachi that killed or wounded hundreds.

Bhutto had planned to lead a huge march next Tuesday from Lahore to Islamabad designed to confront the army -- Musharraf's power base -- in a dramatic showdown.

She and other opposition leaders are calling on Musharraf to resign as military chief and run in fair, internationally-supervised elections.

Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party commands broad popular support, particularly among poor and illiterate. But her attempt to unleash mass demonstrations has so far been thwarted by violent police repression against her supporters and arrest of political allies.

My Pakistani sources report growing unrest in the 619,000-man armed forces. Senior commanders, recently promoted by Musharraf after pre-approval by Washington, support him. But they are increasingly dismayed by the threat of a clash with civilians.

Next Strongman

Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the newly named vice-chief of staff, could be Pakistan's next strongman. He's Washington's Plan B. If Musharraf does finally resign his command, Kiyani will control the military. Musharraf, who has near zero popular support, will be left without a power base -- or even army protection.

Bhutto tells me pro-Taliban tribesmen and Uzbek allies in Northwest Frontier Province on the wild Afghan border are rapidly taking over cities and towns.

Army troops ordered to attack them have surrendered or refused to fire.

This could mark the beginning of a rebellion in the ranks.

The loyalty of the army's senior officers has been rented by billions of dollars of secret aid the CIA has funnelled through Musharraf.

Official post-9/11 U.S. aid to Pakistan is $10.6 billion, but "black" payments are many times higher.

These mammoth payoffs have not trickled down to the mid and lower ranks. They have vanished into the pockets of the military brass and senior officials.

Gen. Hamid Gul, former director general of Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, and an old friend from the 1980s Afghan War, has also been arrested.

He kept accusing Musharraf of selling out Pakistan's national interests in return for cash and U.S. support for his dictatorship -- and of dishonouring the military. Gen. Gul, a Pakistani patriot, still has many friends in the army and ISI.

He shouted what many officers whisper.

Bush and Mush

This week, the self-appointed apostle of democracy, George W. Bush, underlined his continued support for his ally, Musharraf. Bush called on Mush to doff his uniform and hold elections. Musharraf dutifully agreed to do so early next year and to hold elections.

But Musharraf has won every previous elections by blatant vote-rigging and bribery -- we can expect more of the same.

He would lose any fair vote by a landslide.

Bush made no mention of Musharraf's disgraceful firing of Supreme Court justices who were about to declare Mush's ongoing rule violated the constitution. Nor has Bush or the U.S. Congress issued any demands that the exiled former PM Nawaz Sharif, leader of Pakistan's other major political party, the Muslim League, be allowed to return to contest elections. So much for supporting democracy.

In Washington's wrongheaded view, it's either Mush or the mullahs. Or if Mush falters, then it's Bhutto or Gen. Kiyani.

As of this writing, Bhutto still has not decided whether to collaborate with Musharraf or try to force a bloody confrontation with him.

Kiyani remains a cipher.

Anyone who still wonders why so many in the Muslim world hate the West needs look no further than Pakistan, where, in the name of "democracy" and "counter-terrorism," Washington and London are stirring a witches brew of dictatorship, intrigue and violence.

Eric Margolis writes a regular column for The Toronto Sun.

© 2007 The Toronto Sun

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