A challenge to Pakistan's close US ties

President Musharraf narrowly escaped assassination this week, underscoring his importance to the war on terror.

While friends of the US were celebrating the capture of Saddam Hussein on Sunday, America's foes here in Pakistan attempted to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the war on terror.

Five highly sophisticated bombs exploded under a bridge in Rawalpindi, known as the city of the military establishment, seven to eight seconds after President Musharaf's convoy had passed.

Concrete blocks hurtled high into the air, marking a dramatic third assassination attempt carried out since the military ruler cast his lot with US President Bush after Sept. 11, 2001.

It was a close call not only for the general, but for the US-led coalition against terrorism. Pakistan is on the international war's front lines because of its long border with Afghanistan, current political turmoil, and history as a training ground for jihad. Added to this mix is the nation's nuclear arsenal.

"Musharraf is not simply a pawn, but a key figure, on America's chessboard," says a Pakistan-based Western diplomat. "He is playing, and has to play, an important role in America's every move to hunt down Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants from Afghanistan and Pakistan especially until the defeat of the 'king' of Al Qaeda," he says in reference to Osama bin Laden, who is believed to be in hiding along Pakistan's porous border with Afghanistan. "Without [Musharraf] the tables could turn."

The general, who seized power in 1999, has remade his image since 9/11 into that of a progressive ruler.

Along the way, he has infuriated Islamists by abandoning the Taliban, outlawing militant organizations, and agreeing to a ceasefire in Kashmir with India.

"Since Musharraf is placed on top in [Pakistan's] order, both military and state, there is a concern that any change in this scenario could result in chaos. The alternatives would not present a powerful ally like Musharraf," says a Western diplomat.

While the elder generation within Pakistan's military was shaped by the last days of the British Raj, junior officials now rising through the ranks came of age during the days of the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan.

When the Soviet Union and the US ended their proxy war in Afghanistan, Pakistan's military connections with the Islamic fighters continued.

But not all observers see Musharraf as the tail end of a Western-oriented military generation.

"It could be a concern in the West, particularly America, whether its policies get the support in any changed situation. But I don't see any big change in the pro-American policies in the armed forces as an institution," says a Pakistani analyst, Ghazi Salahuddin.

According to a senior military official, Sunday's explosion follows three foiled assassination plots.

In April 2002, three Islamic extremists received 10 years in prison when a remote controlled device failed to detonate a van near the president's motorcade in Karachi. The three belonged to a splinter group of the banned Harkat-ul Mujahideen, which fought in Kashmir and Afghanistan. In 2002, police intelligence sources say, an Islamic militant of Arab origin was arrested for filling explosives in a flag rod prior to a presidential rally in Karachi. A few months later, security officials recovered a sniper gun and telescope from a rooftop of a house in Karachi installed to target Musharraf's motorcade.

A military official says two other assassination attempts were actually carried out, but failed. Islamic militants were also suspected in those attacks.

Officials, however, say the latest attempt on Musharraf's life was the biggest. The Associated Press is reporting that electronic jamming equipment on the Pakistani leader's motorcade may have saved his life, as the bomb appeared to be set off by remote control. Police have picked up several people for questioning.

"We believe this was planned by highly trained terrorists, as the equipment was modern and highly sophisticated. We are looking for a possible nexus between local jihadis and foreign extremists behind this attack," says a senior police investigator in Rawalpindi.

Security is now even tighter around the general. Armed commandos have been deployed in and around the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and security agencies have been put on alert.

Commenting after the attack, Musharraf said, "I have been facing such attacks and I believe in God, who gives and takes life."

The general laid the blame on religious extremists, whom he vowed to fight. But some analysts think the danger may lie closer to his power base - within the ranks of the military.

"He is not only facing threats from extremists but also from their old sympathizers within military establishment who dislike his changed policies," says Prof. Shamim Akhtar, analyst and former head of the international relations department at Karachi University. "The reversal of Afghan and Kashmir policy is not possible overnight, as it is seen as a betrayal to the larger Islamic cause."

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