President prepares Pakistan for bloodshed

Terror in America: Televised address
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The Independent Online

Pakistan's dictator, Pervez Musharraf, gave a nationally televised address last night in which he braced his people for a war led by American forces that could devastate his country.

"The Pakistan army and the Pakistani people are ready to lay down their lives for the safety of the country," Mr Musharraf ­ in military uniform for the occasion ­ said. "Pakistan comes first. Everything else is secondary."

General Musharraf, looking uneasy, explained to the country's 140 million people why he was supporting the American crusade against Osama bin Laden and his protectors, the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan.

He said the United States had asked for Pakistan's co-operation with gathering intelligence, access to its airspace and logistical support as it seeks those responsible for the attacks of 11 September. However, he said, no operational plan was yet ready.

He reassured his people ­ many of whom support Mr bin Laden, a Saudi-born militant, and regard the US as an enemy ­ that American retaliation would not be directed against Islam or Afghans. "Nowhere have the words Islam or the Afghan nation been mentioned," he said.

However, he warned that Pakistan was "passing through a very serious time. Our decision today will impact on our future."

General Musharraf ­ who took power in a bloodless coup in October 1999, in which he displaced an elected civilian government ­ said the full extent of Pakistan's support depended on the final shape of America's plans to get Mr bin Laden out of Afghanistan.

Its target was "first and foremost" Mr bin Laden, then the Taliban and, thirdly, the war against international terrorism, he said.

He showed considerable exasperation with the Taliban, saying he had supported the extreme Islamist regimewhen the world was against it and still wanted to avoid the infliction of suffering on the organisation or on ordinary Afghans. "But at this moment," he said, "my only priority is Pakistan and its defence. Anyone else's defence comes second."

The general was blunt about the position in which Pakistan had found itself after last week's carnage in America. He said the country was facing its greatest danger since 1971, when it lost the third of its three wars against India. "The consequences of a wrong decision will be very serious," he said. To be declared a terrorist nation by the US would harm Pakistan's "strategic interests" ­ its nuclear and missile capability ­ and its support for Muslims in Kashmir, over which it has had disputes with India for more than half a century.

But the President was aware that playing a pivotal role in the US-led alliance against terrorism will "raise Pakistan's credibility", as he put it.

Washington is already showing signs of moving away from Pakistan's perennial rival, India, which received a ritual warning last night to avoid exploiting the situation.

"Our air force is on high alert and is ready for a do-or-die mission," General Musharraf said.

Much of his speech, which was occasionally unfocused, dwelt on his military responsibilities as commander-in-chief, which was possibly aimed at Islamist sympathisers in the army and which served as a reminder of the period immediately after his coup.

Tacitly acknowledging his lack of democratic credentials, he emphasised that he had held consultations in the past week with diverse organisations including military commanders, the media and political parties.

He said that most Pakistanis had asked for patience, but a minority ­ which he estimated at 10 to 15 per cent ­ were inclined to favour "more emotional decisions", a reference to the religious parties that have stirred up street demonstrations in cities across Pakistan this week. The strength of their support may be shown tomorrow, when they have called for a national strike and a rally in Lahore.

General Musharraf, whose speech included a long digression on the early history of Islam, insisted that his Muslim credentials were as good as those of his critics. "What I am doing is absolutely in accordance with Islam, truth and justice," he said.