Omar Waraich: Opposition will seize this opportunity to stoke dissent

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The Independent Online

Pakistan has erupted into a fresh frenzy of anti-Americanism after a US official was arrested on suspicion of killing two Pakistani men in Lahore on Thursday. In custody, the official claims he was acting in self-defence, fearing an attempt to rob him.

Few Pakistanis seem convinced. "Sometimes American drones kill Pakistanis, and sometimes American citizens kill Pakistanis," a prime-time newscaster on a major television channel told his viewers. "When will this end?"

For the millions hostile to Washington, it was seen as further proof of the superpower's malign intentions in the region.

The protests in Islamabad and Lahore may grow. For the government's opponents, the incident allows them to strike a proud, nationalist pose and denounce the government as too weak to act before its US sponsors. For the religious right, it is the latest boon after they urged tens of thousands on to the streets in support of the country's blasphemy laws.

The incident piles fresh pressure on the government, which is already chary of being perceived as too vulnerable to US influence. Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Prime Minister, has condemned the incident and insisted that "the law" will be followed.

But it is likely to encounter difficulties ahead. If the official is released after invoking diplomatic immunity, there will be a fresh outcry. Life for Western diplomats is likely to become even more difficult. They have already been harassed, denied visas and bombed.

America has never enjoyed much popularity in Pakistan. Since polling numbers have been recorded, approval for the US has only once risen above 25 per cent. Those hostile to the US list its support for dictators, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the backing of Israel and closeness to India among their reasons.

During last year's floods, the US lavished the greatest sums in financial aid and committed troops to the rescue effort, elevating its standing in rural Pakistan. But it is urban Pakistan where hating the US is common.

While the shooting has sparked protests and inflamed a hostile media, it will do little to fundamentally alter Pakistan's relationship with its benefactor. "Frankly, anti-American sentiment has reached a point where incidents like this can't make it much worse," says Ejaz Haider, a Lahore-based analyst.