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Zia: aspiring spokesman for the Islamic world

By Mary Anne WeaverSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1982



New Delhi

One is an ayatollah. The other a general.

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And, ironically, it is the general who has deftly outmaneuvered the ayatollah on the Islamic geopolitical chessboard.

The general is Pakistan's Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, who arrives in Washington Monday to begin an eight-day visit to the US. The ayatollah is Iran's Khomeini, who has become almost synonymous with the resurgence of fundamentalist Islam.

But, if there is to be a spokesman for the Islamic world, Marshal Zia seems more likely to assume that role. For although Zia's program of Islamization has met with often bitter resentment inside Pakistan, it has catapulted him into regional and nonaligned circles as a force to be reckoned with.

The Pakistani leader, for instance, has gained the patronage of the royal house of Saud, whose vast oil wealth coalesces with its custodianship of the most sacred shrines of Islam.

He also receives a steady flow of Arab visitors. This past weekend saw Jordan's King Hussein stopping in Islamabad, between visits to Peking and Moscow , to brief General Zia on the progress of the Arab peace plan worked out in Fez, Morocco, earlier this year.

And with Pakistani forces stationed virtually throughout the oil-rich Gulf, General Zia's military government is now competing with North Korea as the third world's second largest supplier of military manpower abroad. Pakistan now is second only to Cuba in the number of troops, advisers, and technicians dispatched abroad by a third world nation.

Deftly applying a carrot-and-stick policy toward Iran's revolutionary regime, General Zia has recently committed Pakistan to exporting up to 100,000 tons of critically needed wheat to Tehran. (Meanwhile, large quantities of heroin from Pakistan are reaching a number of potentially disruptive addicts inside Iran.) And, while nearly all Arab governments have thrown their support behind Baghdad in the Gulf war, Pakistan's Zia is one of the few influential Muslims who has kept the lines open for talks with Tehran.

It is a subtle chess game that General Zia is playing, according to Western diplomats. He is appeasing Khomeini, yet keeping him at bay, as a means of neutralizing the potential of Iran's militantly fundamentalist regime to spread agitation among the 15 percent Shiite population inside Pakistan and among the country's militant Sunnis who charge that General Zia's Islamization is no more than window dressing.

There have been persistent reports over the last 10 months that General Zia has also opened Pakistani airfields to North Korea, as a key conduit, for the transhipment of arms and advisers into Iran. Western military experts acknowledge that the shipments are crucial to Khomeini's ongoing war with Iraq.

The Pakistani leader, in a recent interview, denied any such involvement.

''Pakistan is not a party to any supply of arms from a third country to Iran, '' he said. ''We are a member of the peace committee (attempting to negotiate an end to the war). . . . How can we be partial? How could I be (so) double-faced? Talking about a cease-fire, and then acting in (such) a Machiavellian way?''

Western diplomats have confirmed, however, that Pakistan continues overhauling some Iranian military equipment, as it has done in the past, and that one of Zia's primary foreign policy preoccupations continues to be to keep Iran afloat as a non-communist, anti-Soviet regime.

But he has, at the same time, skillfully maneuvered Khomeini aside in international parleys both within the Islamic Conference Organization, and within the nonaligned movement.