PAKISTAN is an uneasy American ally in the Gulf region. Even as 11,000 Pakistan troops line up alongside United States-lead coalition forces in Saudi Arabia, Pakistanis back home debate whether the country should oppose Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
A predominantly Muslim country of 110 million people, Pakistan has churned with pro-Saddam protests and anti-Western violence since war erupted two weeks ago. The turmoil is further straining ties between Washington and Islamabad already taut from sharply reduced US aid and a standoff over Pakistan's controversial nuclear program.
For many Pakistanis unsettled by the widening rift, the Iraqi leader looms large as a symbol of defiance against the US.
``Sentiment against America is running very high,'' says M.B. Naqvi, a political commentator in Karachi. ``No one really likes Saddam Hussein. But he has stood up against the superpower.''
Strong new pro-Iraq passions and conflicting links to Saudi Arabia and the US are confounding many subcontinent Muslims. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh have troops in the Gulf. But in both countries thousands of volunteers are demanding the right to fight for the Iraqi president.
In India, five people were killed Sunday when Muslims demonstrating against the war clashed with Hindus. Many Muslims, however, have stayed away from rallies for fear that antiwar protests could re-ignite religious rioting.
Founded as a secular state, India is predominantly Hindu although its Muslim minority of more than 100 million people is one of the world's largest Islamic communities.
``The reaction among Muslims is a mixture of prudence and confusion,'' says Bashiruddin Ahmad, a political scientist at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. ``Muslims here are confused because they're not sure who to back - Saddam or Saudi Arabia. But it is probably prudence that keeps them off the streets.''
In Pakistan, observers say, the dilemma is even more bewildering. Carved out of British India more than 40 years ago as a homeland for subcontinent Muslims, Pakistan finds itself part of the US-led coalition even as its longstanding, yet volatile relations with the US weaken.
Last fall, the US suspended assistance to Pakistan because of mounting evidence that Pakistan is developing nuclear weapons. Coinciding with a controversial Pakistan election, many Pakistanis viewed the American action as an attempt to influence the poll in favor of ousted Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Ms. Bhutto, who was removed from office on charges of corruption, was defeated at the polls last October by a conservative, military-backed coalition now led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Last week, the Bush administration moved to distance itself further from Pakistan, reportedly notifying Congress of plans to slash aid from $500 million in fiscal 1990 to $208 million this year.
The smaller amount will be withheld if US officials are unable to certify that Pakistan is not developing nuclear weapons. ``This will sour relations further and make it even harder for Nawaz Sharif to support the policy in the Gulf,'' says a Western diplomat in Islamabad.
Mr. Sharif, a businessman turned politician, has been trying to quiet protests that observers say threaten his three-month-old government.
Recently, Sharif launched a peace mission to the Gulf aimed at quieting opposition at home, observers say. ``It's a PR gimmick that didn't go down with the people,'' says Mr. Naqvi. ``But it hasn't had much impact.''