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    South Asia
     Feb 17, 2006
Mixed motives stoke Pakistan's flames
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - With the Pakistani media vocally discussing how protesters have been given a virtual free hand to rampage throughout the country, there are clear indications that during President George W Bush's visit to Pakistan next month anti-US sentiments will reach fever pitch.

At that time, Pakistan will once again portray itself as a hotbed of extremists that can only be controlled by a powerful, uniformed president.

Protests over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed have risen in intensity over the past few weeks, and turned violent on Tuesday

and Wednesday, with Scandinavian and US businesses targeted. The unrest is being called the country's worst in many years.

Two people were killed in the northwestern city of Peshawar and about 60 were injured in other protests. Two people were killed in the eastern city of Lahore.

Protesters torched an outlet of US fast-food chain KFC in Peshawar, and signboards of Norwegian phone company Telenor ASA and several buildings with Danish interests were damaged. Vehicles were also set on fire. The cartoons were first published in a Danish newspaper and some were reprinted in Norway.

Thousands of protesters were dispersed in different parts of Peshawar and businesses were closed. Protesters in Lahore damaged a franchise restaurant of McDonald's, damaged banks and buildings and set several vehicles on fire. Protests were held in other cities, including Multan, Hyderabad and Bahawalpur.

A statement by Telenor issued in Islamabad on Thursday said it considered the publication of the cartoons "utterly deplorable". Telenor had a "long-term commitment" to its more than 2 million customers in Pakistan, it said.

Ahl-e-Sunat, a religious group, planned to protest against the cartoons in Karachi on Thursday, it said in a statement sent to newspaper offices. Karachi is the largest city of Pakistan and is considered its financial hub. All schools were closed on Thursday. A local youth organization, Pasban, has also called for a strike on Friday in the city.

The upsurge in violent protests surprised many, but at the same time the media have questioned the handling of the unrest by the administration of President General Pervez Musharraf, wondering why adequate arrangements were not made to deter the protests once their extent became clear. 

An Urdu daily newspaper, Khabrain, which is published from Lahore, called the violence on Tuesday the worst in the history of the city. Dozens of public-sector buildings, including the provincial assembly, as well as many private properties such as banks and offices, were set on fire.

News reports, however, noted that in many instances the security forces turned a blind eye, or were slow to react.

Renowned journalist and television anchor Talat Hussain also raised the issue in relation to the capital, Islamabad, where college students staged a rally that turned violent as they rampaged near the high-security diplomatic enclave. Talat pointed out that even on ordinary days it is virtually impossible to get near the zone. Yet 6,000 students (a massive number by Islamabad standards) managed to approach the enclave, and even breach its security in some places.

These incidents take on a special importance as they come at a time of intense debate in the United States over how to treat Pakistan, a key ally in the "war on terror". US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she supports Pakistan's present quasi-democratic military setup as she sees Musharraf as a suitable person to turn the country into a moderate state.

On the other hand, others in the Bush administration are losing patience with Pakistan as it has failed to deliver any "big fish" from al-Qaeda's ranks, and parts of the country, such as the South Waziristan tribal area, are infested with the Taliban and the Afghan resistance. They believe Musharraf should be placed under more pressure, and this includes pushing for greater democracy in the country.

Influential think-tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have suggested that Musharraf exploits the "war on terror" and extremism in his favor, and is not sincere as a US ally.

Asia Times Online contacts familiar with the situation claim that the US has already started gathering feedback, and the response indicates that Washington will this year try to persuade Pakistan to curtail the role of the army in domestic politics.

An emerging situation
Behind the present demonstrations is an underlying trend that has not been widely reported. Such protests have traditionally been the bread and butter of the religious-political parties to stir up their workers as well as motivate the masses. However, this week, for the first time, the common masses took to the streets on their own accord.

The students' rally in Islamabad on Tuesday was not called by any political student union. The rally was undertaken by students from all over the capital. The rally in Lahore on Tuesday was called by the Anjuman-i-Tahfuz-i-Namoos-i-Naboowat, under which various religious and political parties were to take a lead. However, from the morning the whole city of Lahore was closed and many thousands of people, without party flags, took to the streets.

According to witnesses, Lahore's major arteries were fully crowded, and the rally began before the announced time and even without the political leaders joining in.

The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, a six-party religious alliance, has called for a countrywide strike on March 3 and a million-person rally on March 5 in Karachi. However, the situation might escalate before that, as little-known organizations at the district level have already given calls for rallies and strikes, and the masses are responding to them.

At the same time, the wave of mass protests has become so strong that even the liberal secular and pro-Western parties, such as the Pakistan People's Party Parliamentarian led by Benazir Bhutto and the Muttahida Quami Movement led by Altaf Hussain, have announced big rallies to protest the cartoons. They can see an opportunity when it arises.

For the first time, people on their own accord are boycotting European products and vendors selling products manufactured by European companies.

The situation is volatile, and open to exploitation from various factions, from anti-Musharraf and anti-US groups to jihadis looking to bolster their cause in Afghanistan.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan Asia Times Online. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

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