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ISLAMABAD — Protesters marching in Pakistani streets during worldwide demonstrations last weekend against United States-led plans to attack Iraq have triggered fresh speculation about the South Asian country’s future relations with Washington. Pakistan has been a key U.S. ally in the fight against terror since the 9/11 attacks set the course for the Bush administration’s approach to the conduct of American foreign policy.

Just as Bush may be viewed as a one-issue president — defining his policies on the basis of fighting terrorism — Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf could be called a one-issue military ruler whose policies derive from the consolidation of control against considerable odds.

Though still a U.S. ally, Musharraf’s government has been stung in recent months by allegations, originating mainly from sources for U.S. newspapers, that Pakistan had a role in helping North Korea with its nuclear development program in return for missile components.

On the domestic front, in recent months Musharraf has been the focus of attacks by political opponents who accuse him of derailing democracy to strengthen his own position, despite October’s supposed transition to civilian rule. Pakistan’s new democratic order has been built on what many would characterize as a tenuous foundation. Controversial provisions have been added to the country’s constitution, such as the empowerment of Musharraf to sack an elected prime minister. Moreover, the moribund state of Pakistan’s economy, which is best illustrated by the impoverishment of almost one-third of the population, must ultimately affect public sentiment adversely.

Yet, in the case of Iraq, Pakistan is set to perform a role not only as a U.S. ally and the world’s only nuclear-armed Islamic country but also as a current nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council. It took its seat in January. Most Pakistanis have good reason to oppose a war on Iraq, recognizing that it would be a conflict that would divide Pakistanis while undermining the nation’s many interests.

It appears that the U.S., backed by Britain (despite growing public opposition to British Prime Minister Tony Blair), may go to war with or without the Security Council’s authorization. Reaction on the streets of Pakistan as well as in official circles is bound to emerge in the form of calls for a review of policy toward the U.S. to optimize Pakistan’s political, economic and strategic interests. As the number of casualties in Iraq rise, the neighboring Islamic world is bound to witness public demands for a tougher approach toward the U.S. regardless of the consequences.

Recent chants heard in Pakistan to “get rid of America” reflect the public view that America is an arrogant country whose unequivocal backing of Israel amid continued Palestinian casualties in the occupied territories is an example of a blatant insensitivity toward democratic and humanitarian norms.

There are also fears of a U.S.-led campaign to undermine economic interests in the Middle East, including possibly the seizure of Iraq’s vital oil interests. Anecdotal evidence gathered across the Arab world — from cafes to newspaper offices — suggest that many people are convinced that a future occupation of Iraq by the U.S., perhaps with a nominal U.N. presence, would be aimed at forcing Iraq to compensate for the costs of war, even though the conflict was Washington’s singular choice to begin with. If that held true, a postwar and devastated Iraq could be paying reparations for years to come.

Ultimately, though, the threat of armed intervention is bound to affect the strategic defensive approach of other governments and press them into taking a tougher view of relations with Washington. It would likely be a tall order for Musharraf to choose whether to abandon his alliance with Washington, since such ties may be the only thing that buoys him above increasing domestic opposition.

If Washington is interested in having Musharraf take firmer charge of Pakistan, there is the danger of many miscalculations. For example, the possibility exists that a flawed campaign to conquer Iraq could trigger internal disorder in Pakistan. The U.S. then might find it increasingly difficult to successfully back a close Islamic ally in the fight against terror.

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