Zia: aspiring spokesman for the Islamic world

One is an ayatollah. The other a general.

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.

''Pakistan, unlike Iran,'' said one Western official, ''is not attempting to export Islamic revolution, which is somewhat muddled here. It has concentrated instead on Islamic diplomacy, at a time when revivalism is sweeping the Muslim world. And at a time when that revivalism has produced no single leader. It appears quite obvious that Zia would like to fill the void.''

The payoff has been an infusion of money into the coffers of Pakistan's military regime, including $1 billion in economic assistance from Saudi Arabia annually. The Saudis have also, since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, reportedly invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the upkeep of Pakistan's now 2.8 million Afghan refugees. They have agreed to underwrite $500 million in new military equipment for the Zia regime, and have made the $111 million downpayment on Pakistan's 40 new F-16 warplanes.

(Pakistan delayed the US delivery of the first six F-16s last week because they were not fitted with special electronic equipment for detecting enemy ground and airborne radar. The dispute has been resolved, according to Pakistani officials, and delivery has been rescheduled for later this month.)

And, on prominent ground overlooking Islamabad, stands the $42 million King Faisal mosque. Set on a terraced plateau at the foot of the Margallah hills, the mosque, when completed, will have the highest minarets in the world. It is being financed by the Saudis and has drawn considerable criticism here as an ostentatious expenditure, in a nation where per capita income is only $300 a year.

But, the overriding consideration in the alignment between General Zia and the house of Saud is a military alliance forged by mutual geopolitical concern. Both governments saw a direct threat to their own security with the fall of the Shah in Iran. They were even more unsettled when Soviet tanks and heavy artillery rolled into Afghanistan. And both then perceived an indifference on the part of the United States to stand up to the Soviet threat, or to give support and sustenance to Washington's traditional allies.

It was then that the Saudis requested a new infusion of Pakistani troops, far above those who have long guarded the Saudi leader's throne.

Today, Pakistan is deploying two divisions of troops in Saudi Arabia, commanded by a lieutenant general close to Zia ul-Haq. They have been arriving slowly, over the last 18 months, according to a high-level Pakistani military source. On the record, the government continues to deny that there are more than a ''few thousand'' Pakistani forces in Saudi Arabia. But ranking Western officials confirm that, with the full dispatch of the two divisions, the Pakistani contingent will represent some 20,000 troops.

There are also large Pakistani military units, including pilots, technicians, and advisers in Jordan, Libya, and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. All together, according to Western military experts, there are believed to be nearly 30,000 Pakistani troops abroad. And additional rapid deployment forces stand ready, if needed, for the Gulf.

Some of the troops are dispatched to Bedouin legions protecting shaky Arab thrones, in a Pakistani tradition instituted many years ago.

And even Zia ul-Haq, though now a firm supporter of the Palestine Liberation Organization, helped rout the Palestinians from Jordan 12 years ago, as a brigade commander charged with protecting the Hashemite throne.

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