Bhutto to Project Pakistan As Wall Against Militant Islam

In US visit, leader will try to patch up strained relations

PAKISTANI Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's visit to Washington this week may be one of the most crucial diplomatic challenges of her political career.

If nothing else, the trip will be busy. Ms. Bhutto intends to start the slow process of patching up relations with the United States and restoring economic and military aid, cut off by Washington in 1990 in a dispute over Pakistan's suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Yet back home, Bhutto is facing criticism from hard-liners for putting US ties ahead of Pakistan's security. And the deaths of two Americans in a spate of violence in Karachi makes all these tasks more complicated.

The Bhutto administration also faces a stagnating economy. Pakistan's tense stand-off with India over the Kashmir issue continues to drain the economy in the form of a large defense budget.

A powerful drug mafia has become increasingly determined to undermine her government. She claims her administration has stepped up the fight against drug traffickers.

During the past year, Bhutto has won the wrath of some of the country's powerful drug barons by extraditing them to the US to face charges. In a display of cooperation with US authorities, Pakistan yesterday extradited two alleged drug leaders to the US.

In her meetings with President Clinton April 11, Bhutto is expected to raise the subject of over $1 billion that Pakistan has paid for the purchase of up to 71 F-16 fighter jets and other military hardware. Due to the sanctions, neither the equipment has been delivered nor the money refunded. Senior Pakistani officials are hoping that the US administration will find another buyer to purchase the planes so that Islamabad could be issued a refund.

In her visit with congressional leaders, she hopes to project Pakistan as a valuable ally with whom the US could build new bridges of cooperation.

She will likely try to depict her government as a bulwark against the region's rising Islamic fundamentalism and has publicly criticized Islamic militants trying to undermine the stability. Her February extradition to the US of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the alleged mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, has strengthened her image.

''One of the messages I will be taking to the [US] administration and Congress is that you are a fair nation and we've been allies. Help me strengthen the forces of moderation by taking away the factors that fuel fanaticism,'' Bhutto said in a recent interview with journalists. She said her government does not have enough money to combat the troubles and US sanctions were making problems worse.

''Should the United States not review its policies to strengthen a moderate Pakistan?'' she added. ''An old friend [of America], an ally, a front-line state against extremism, militancy, terrorism, and the narcotics trade is being undermined.''

But her task in convincing congressional leaders is not easy. Since the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Pakistan's position as a state with huge Western backing has been undermined.

''The West doesn't consider Pakistan at the same position as it did in the '80s'' says a senior Western diplomat here. ''Therefore, Islamabad comes under much greater scrutiny than before.''

Her message is also expected to focus on Pakistan's role in combatting international terrorism and the activities of Islamic militants, who have emerged as one of the aftereffects of the Afghan war. ''Pakistan is in the vanguard of the movement to uncover militant groups ... operating in different Muslim countries,'' she said, adding that the threat of fundamentalism and terrorism were not ''just a problem for Pakistan, but ... for the world community.''

But when Bhutto comes calling for aid, US lawmakers may see the spiraling violence in Karachi, Pakistan's commercial hub, as a poor incentive for improved relations. The March 8 killings of two US consulate employees provoked unprecedented international publicity. At least 800 people were killed in ethnic and sectarian violence in 1994 and more than 360 have died this year. Police launched a massive security sweep after those killings, but no one has been arrested.

One final item on Bhutto's agenda is seeking US mediation on the disputed region of Kashmir. US officials say they would mediate only if India agreed. New Delhi has always insisted the row must be settled by bilateral talks.

Bhutto's biggest hope, however, is attached to a possible easing of US sanctions, which would allow Pakistan some concessions, such as the return of Pakistani military hardware sent to the US for repairs before the 1990 aid cutoff but withheld along with the newly purchased equipment.

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