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How Pakistan's Imran Khan taps anti-Americanism to fuel political rise

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is to Pakistan what Sarah Palin is to the US: controversial, and, arguably, a force to be reckoned with.

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“The whole world knows that an accused is innocent until a court says you are guilty. He who takes the law into his own hand and kills is himself a terrorist,” he said at the Peshawar rally, referring to US forces.

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Such rhetoric is common among Islamist hard-liners and religious party leaders, but Khan’s urbane appeal as a former cricketer who won international acclaim means he can reach a wider, less religious audience and position himself as the acceptable face of anti-Americanism, says Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s Herald Magazine.

When mullahs talk, people don't stop to listen. "But when a Western educated clean-shaven man does the same, it does suit them,” Mr. Alam says of Khan, who was educated at Oxford and maintained a reputation as a playboy throughout his cricketing career, before his nine-year marriage with British heiress Jemima Goldsmith.

Khan has what the US wants

Khan’s support base of Pakistan’s middle class, women, and the youth (who make up 70 percent of the country) are exactly the groups the US has targeted in its battle to win hearts and minds in Pakistan.

The country’s youth are particularly rapt by Khan, who appeals to their sense of national pride, says columnist Fasi Zaka.

“The youth of this country think politics is entirely rubbish,” he says. Therefore, Khan’s message of bringing about a "revolution" appeals to young people turned off by traditional politics.

Another part of Khan’s appeal is his squeaky-clean reputation in a country where allegations of corruption are rampant. His Shaukat Khanum hospital, established in memory of his mother, is regarded as one of the best in the country. Last year he was active in fundraising after the worst flooding to hit the country. And in 2008 he set up a college in his home district of Mianwali. “When compared to the other personalities in Pakistani politics, he is a saint,” says Mr. Zaka.

He’s also known for being a straight shooter.

According to a US embassy cable leaked by the whistle-blower website Wikileaks, Khan made “often pointed and critical statements on US policy, which he characterized as dangerous and in need of change” in a meeting with former US Ambassador Anne Patterson last year. That’s in stark contrast to other leaders like Nawaz Sharif, the country’s main opposition leader, and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, its most powerful Islamist party leader – both known for their hostile stances toward the US in public. Leaked US embassy cables showed their tone in private meetings to be far more conciliatory, to the point of fawning.

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