Pakistani President Zia ul-Haq, a devout Muslim, hoped that by hosting the 34 -nation Islamic Conference three months ago some wealthy Arab states might come to the financial rescue of his impoverished country.

But only meager amounts have trickled in since the Muslim nations met in January to weigh, andultimately condemn, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

So now the mercurial General Zia, while continuing to solicit arms and aid from Western Europe and the Arabs, is showing signs of reconsidering a $400 million economic and military-aid package from the US -- at least the economic half of the package.

Initially the Pakistani government brusquely rejected the US offer as "peanuts." It felt the Americans were trying to use their sovereignty to counter the growing Soviet influence in the Persian Gulf area.

In fact, General Zia's foreign adviser, Agha Shahi, asserted the aid would detract rather than enhance Pakistan's security.

But recently the Zia regime hinted it might accept the US offer -- provided there were no strings attached and it were fully revised. In doing so, the President has revealed a weakening of his own position.

Pakistan already pumps 60 percent of its budget into the military. It would require at least $3 billion worth of assistance, the government says, to reconstruct its armed forces and establish a massive defense grid stretching from the highly vulnerable desert areas of Baluchistan to the mountains of the Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.

Indian intelligence sources maintain, however, that a substantial portion of the proposed expenditure would be used to beef up defenses along the Pakistan-India border.

General Zia, who took power in July 1977 by imposing martial law on Pakistan's multi-ethnic 75 million people in the wake of political chaos, is known to have come under considerable pressure from disgruntled members of the military for refusing the American aid. A little aid, these officers argued, would be better than nothing.

The aid is badly needed to shore up the country's sagging economy. One of the world's poorest countries, Pakistan is suffering from high unemployment and inflation as well as an excessive foreign debt.

But the greatest degree of discontent lies among civilians. Unhappy with the strapped economy, many Pakistanis are also sorely disappointed with General Zia's failure to keep his promise to hold elections last November.

The excesses of former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, executed by the regime April 4, 1979, appear to have faded. The Bhutto spirit has gained a mystic touch. "Bhutto may have made many mistakes," notes a Pushtu lawyer in Peshawar. "But Zia has been making nothing but outright blunders."

Mr. Bhutto's political heritage is finding itself rapidly revived in the image of his dauther, Benazir. She had been living under house arrest with her mother, Nusrat, in Karachi for the past six months. Considered a serious threat to President Zia, the two women had been forbidden to talk with the press.

The fiery Benazir, however, took advantage of a British Broadcasting Corporation interview last fall to label the strong man a "pig" -- knowing full well the foreign broadcast would be heard by government officials and the public alike.

"Zia is well aware that the political opposition could rally around a personality as colorful as Benazir's," claims a member of Bhutto's People's Party in Lahore. Present divisions among the country's numerous underground political factions, however, tend to disqualify chances of a united front against the military dictatorship for the moment.

President Zia's fragile power base appears to be threatened more by in-house unrest than outside revolution, observers believe. "If Zia goes, then the country will find itself most probably with another colonel or general," a European diplomat says. A group of officers recently tried, unsuccessfully, to overthrow the President.

The repressive right-wing dictatorship appears to have driven a substantial portion of its political opposition to the left. And conversations with left-wing Pakistanis reveal that pro-Soviet sentiment is not negligible.

Late last month, a clandestine antigovernment tract was publicly aired for the first time attacking the regime. The single-page, Urdu-language protest note expressed what many Pakistanis have been saying in private.

Not only did it attack President Zia's Islamic credentials as lacking "a touch of human brotherhood and people's consent," it also accused him of risking "the very existence of this country . . . to protect the interests of the imperialists."

The tract, signed by the previously unknown "Revolutionary Democratic Front," referred to the United States, China, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia as belonging to the imperialist league.

With the question of foreign aid again being raised, observers feel the US should proceed cautiously. "It would be a complete and utter mistake not to give aid to Pakistan," a European diplomat notes. "But one cannot help but understand the resentment of the people for the military dictatorship. Aid should not imply moral support for Zia. Unfortunately, no matter what the Americans do, this is exactly how it will be interpreted."

General Zia's opponents often draw analogies to the Iranian situation. "The Americans supported the Shah, and look what happened," says a Pakistani trade unionist from Quetta in Baluchistan. "The same thing will happen here."

Significantly, many Pakistanis -- both left-wing and moderate -- say they would not support the United States in a US-Soviet clash. "We want to be left alone," a government official in Peshawar says candidly. "We refuse to side with anyone. It is a superpower struggle that has nothing to do with us."

Opponents strongly feel that General Zia has been liberally exploiting the Afghan issue to strengthen his own position. Publicly, he frequently calls for national unity in the face of external dangers. But giving him military support , opponents claim, will only spark more repressive measures.

The Pakistani leader constantly tries to boost his credibility in the eyes of his people -- and the Arab world. This explains his determination to develop a nuclear bomb, which is causing jitters in India and which prompted the US to turn off the financial-aid spigot before the Soviet invasion.

Washington insists that Islamabad is continuing to build a plant to produce bomb-grade enriched uranium. Pakistan denies it has plans to produce a nuclear device, but refuses to pledge that "a peaceful nuclear device" would not be built or tested.

Pakistan's unwillingness to make a non-nuclear commitment has added fuel to speculation that Pakistan has embarked on an "Islamic bomb," so called because of reports that radical Arabs, such as Libya, were bankrolling the project.

The politically insecure ruler almost daily monopolizes nationwide radio and television to help foster an image of leadership. Normally independent newspapers and magazines -- under threat of fines or imprisonment -- are forced into self-censorship. Government officials check suspect copy.

A correspondent of the Far East Economic Review, Salamut Ali, was sentenced to one-year imprisonment last fall for writing about the taboo subject of Baluchistan autonomy. He was released March 29 on "humanitarian grounds" following an outpouring of international protest.

"Zia knows he has not got the support of the people," declares a Pushtu merchant, whose teashop overlooks the jammed streets of Peshawar's central bazaar. "We have had a taste of democracy. That is why he is a frightened man."

In an apparent attempt at political appeasement, General Zia gave his stamp of approval to municipal elections last September. But there was a catch: Candidates could only participate on a non-partisan basis. Members of Mr. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party ran as "independents" and drew strong support. But several were then disqualified for breaking election rules.

Despite government attempts to neutralize the election's significance, the popular response to the free voting indicated widespread frustration about the country. A worried President Zia, as a result, canceled proposed November elections that by this time threatened to turn into an anti-dictatorship plebiscite.

More recently, the Pakistani leader called a two-day "all-Pakistan local bodies convention," which he touted as "the first step toward the establishment of a representative government." The convention, he maintained, would "establish a link between the matial-law government and the people." It was attended by officials elected in the September municipal balloting.

For all practical purposes, however, the Pakistani regime remains a right-wing dictatorship that raises serious questions about human rights.

Thousands of political opponents, mainly leftwing, are repeatedly authorities. At least seven secret service organizations watch over the populace as well as foreign journalists.

"Critics are sometimes arrested on the most trivial of charges," explains a Pakistani journalist from a leading national paper. "Like not paying one's electricity bill in time. Many opponents find themselves doing a regular in and out of prison, never staying for long, but always enough to show them who is in charge."

Thieves are publicly flogged according to Koranic law. So are adulterers and alcohol drinkers, who can receive 10 to 15 lashes for their crimes. Even children have been beaten publicly. "Such medieval practices make Pakistan a dubious partner for any Western democracy," one observer notes.

Most analysts agree that political change is far off. This is even readily admitted by Pakistan's deeply frustrated political parties. "The military is too well ensconced in the administration," a Pakistani lawyer says.

The regime's officers too often find that running the country can be a lucrative business, observers contend.

"Corruption can be found almost everywhere," a Pakistani journalist says. "There years ago, you would see majors driving around in brand new cars. Now you see lieutenants."

Corruption in Pakistan is nothing new, however. It was just as rife during the Bhutto administration.

Still, the Pakistan of today strikes one as impoverished, stagnant society with little room for imagination and individual initiative. The government's stifling, Kafkaesque bureaucracy contributes much to his.

Most young, educated, enterprising Pakistanis -- who face limited job prospects at home -- have but one goal: to emigrate, preferably to West Germany, the United States, or Britain.

Illiterate laborers seek to work in the Gulf states where wages are much higher than in their homeland.

Even high Pakistani officials or pro-regime intellectuals seem almost apologetic about the regime.

Says one well-placed and respected Pakistani: "We all know that in the long run a martial-law administration is not healthy. Even President Zia admits this.But what can he do? There is no one to replace him and we do not want a return to the political chaos that existed before. Now at least, we have order."

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