Published on Saturday, March 4, 2006 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Pakistanis Revile Bush Visit
by James Rupert
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Pakistanis shut down their country with a nationwide strike and protests Friday as President George W. Bush flew here from India for talks with President Pervez Musharraf.
After Air Force One landed at an air base in Rawalpindi Friday night -- with window shades down and running lights turned off -- Bush's entourage was whisked into a bubble of protection and official welcome.
The capital, Islamabad, and many other cities were eerily quiet throughout the day, although thousands of men marched in Peshawar, Multan and Karachi to condemn Bush and the United States, and Musharraf, for allying with them. The protests, plus Thursday's bombing in Karachi that killed an American consulate official, have overshadowed the White House's goal for the trip: to depict a friendly and broad U.S.-Pakistani relationship that reaches beyond simple joint defense in the "global war on terrorism."
Timing may be off
But if there is a good time for a presidential arrival to showcase such a broad friendship, it seems not to be seven weeks after U.S. forces fired missiles into a Pakistani village near the Afghan border. The attack, aimed at wiping out a top al-Qaida leader, instead killed at least 12 local residents, including women and children. Last month, when protests mushroomed against the publication in Europe of caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, anger at the missile strike helped militant Islamic politicians here convert the demonstrations into violent outbursts against the United States and Musharraf.
Even before the missile attack, Pakistani opinion polls and analysts have registered simmering anger at the United States for years over the deaths of Muslim civilians and abuse of Muslim prisoners at the hands of U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.
The mix of old anger and new was on display in the hours before Bush landed.
Pakistan's alliance of Islamic political parties, the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, called a general strike Friday that left bazaars shuttered and streets empty in Islamabad and other cities. In Multan, in southern Punjab province, the alliance leader, Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, rallied 10,000 people and criticized Musharraf for inviting an American leader he said had abused Muslims. In Rawalpindi, next to Islamabad, as in Chaman on the Afghan border and Peshawar in the northwest, crowds ranging from 100 to several thousand shouted "Death to Bush," "Bush go home" and other condemnation.
Protecting the president
The protests and the bombing in Karachi have created considerable focus on Bush's own security. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters in India "the necessary precautions are in place" for the Pakistan leg of Bush's tour, "but this is not a risk-free undertaking."
Pakistani officials said they deployed 6,000 police in Rawalpindi and Islamabad to enforce calm. The eastern end of Islamabad, where the main government buildings are clustered, was sealed off by police and decorated as though for Christmas with strings of tiny white lights on fences, bushes, trees and curbsides. The lights surrounded Musharraf's presidential palace, a heavily defended compound where Bush attended a formal dinner.
The government complex is adjoined by a fenced and guarded diplomatic enclave, where Bush reportedly was to stay the night at the ambassador's residence within the fortress-like U.S. Embassy. Spending a night in Islamabad is one way Bush seems to be trying to show confidence in Musharraf and perhaps draw a contrast between his visit and a strained, six-hour stopover by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Following complaints by Afghanistan and India about militant Muslim guerrilla groups attacking them from Pakistan, Bush told reporters he will ask Musharraf to do more to wipe out such groups, which in past years were nurtured by Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies. But diplomats say the visible signals suggest he won't push Musharraf very hard on the issue. In virtually every reference to the guerrilla attacks, on and just before his trip, Bush has testified to Musharraf's commitment to oppose al-Qaida, reminding audiences that the group has tried more than once to assassinate Musharraf.
Leaders are "friends"
Last month, Bush effusively praised Musharraf to Pakistani journalists as "my buddy and my friend" and described his personal relationship with Musharraf as one that "can set a tone" for the two countries' relations.
Musharraf, a general who ousted Pakistan's elected government in a 1999 coup, promised to build an "enlightened" and moderate Pakistani state. But he reneged on promises to give up his simultaneous position as chief of army staff and to restore civilian rule within three years. The lives of Pakistan's impoverished majority have improved little in his six-year administration, and popular support for Musharraf has eroded deeply.
Bush's stress on his personal ties to Musharraf as a root of U.S.-Pakistani ties tends to dilute the White House's attempt to portray a broad, lasting, nation-to-nation partnership, said a Western diplomat, who asked not to be identified. And it risks alienating many Pakistanis who believe Musharraf is preparing to hold unfair elections next year to win a new mandate in power, he said.
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