- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan Authorities arrested the leader of Pakistan's largest political party yesterday, just hours after he joined militant Islamists in calling for a general strike Nov. 9 to protest the U.S. air campaign against Afghanistan.

Mukhdoom Javed Hashmi, acting president of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), was detained on apparently unrelated corruption charges. But his backing for the general strike is evidence that public dismay at the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan is seeping into the Pakistani mainstream.

"As the air strikes are prolonged, the sentiments of Muslims, whether liberal, secular or fundamentalist, are with the Afghan people," said Siranjam Khan, general secretary of the PML.

"We are not fundamentalists. We are liberals and our support of the strike is only because we want to record our protest of the bombing of the people of Afghanistan," he said in an interview.

The PML is the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was deposed in a 1999 military coup by the current president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf. The last time elections were held, in 1997, the PML won more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament.

Pakistani officials insist that most people support Gen. Musharraf and that the wave of anti-U.S. protests are the work of hard-line Islamic parties that have won only a fraction of the popular vote in past elections.

A special anti-corruption court set up by Gen. Musharraf to recover assets pilfered by leaders of previous elected governments ordered the PML leader jailed for 15 days on charges of accumulating illegal assets. Party leaders cried foul.

"Why didn't they arrest him before now? The warrant for his arrest was issued within an hour of our meeting," said Mr. Khan, referring to a late-night session of PML leaders Wednesday that voted to back the general strike.

In recent days, Western diplomats have watched with alarm as Afghanistan's Taliban regime has gained sympathy from prominent Pakistani figures such as Mr. Hashimi.

They were particularly surprised to see the PML throw in its lot with the leaders of next week's planned general strike, who are calling for protesters to "lay siege" to Islamabad.

"I ask you to be ready to reach and besiege Islamabad," Qazi Ahmad, an influential religious leader of Jamaat-i-Islami, said earlier this week. "Take along at least 10 days of food with you but do not bring weapons."

"We will not return home until the unpopular and illegal Musharraf government is replaced," Mr. Ahmad told thousands of cheering supporters.

Such rallies had delighted Taliban leaders, as did yesterday's news that 1,000 Pakistani fighters had made their way across the border into Afghanistan. The Taliban Embassy's black-turbaned deputy ambassador, Sohail Shaheen, appeared alongside Mr. Ahmad last weekend to jointly host a book introduction and condemn the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

Among ordinary Pakistani citizens, pro-Taliban sentiment seems to stem from ethnic and religious bonds.

"It is not that we are anti-American," a young Pakistani man said while casually scrolling through Web pages at a cybercafe. "It is just that we don't like anyone killing innocent Afghans. We are Muslims and they are Muslims.

"When the Russians were killing them, we were anti-Russian. If the British are now killing them, we will be anti-British. Even if Pakistan starts killing them, then we Pakistanis will be anti-Pakistan."

Support for the Taliban is also an expression of class identity. Pakistan's poor, the source of much Taliban support, often perceive wealthy Pakistanis as frivolous, hedonistic, corrupt and immoral. Muslim extremists and political dissidents cultivate disaffection within that quarter.

"Some of the demonstrations are starting to be anti-Musharraf, which is a greater concern to me than when they are anti-American," a Western diplomat said.


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