Secretly, they feel the bully on the block has been punished

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The Independent Online

Tension mounted across Pakistan as the impoverished Islamic republic began to deal with the fact it is likely to be up to its neck in whatever punishment America metes out to the perpetrators of Tuesday's atrocities.

General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler and self-styled president, has promised America his government's "fullest co-operation" and, according to reports, has already acceded to a US request for permission to use Pakistani air space.

But the Islamic political parties have begun to bare their claws. Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, the leader of one faction of the pro-Taliban group, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, said that if the US attacked Afghanistan, religious leaders would call for jihad (holy war) against America.

Reaction to the attacks on America has been muted here. In contrast to Palestine, public support for them has been negligible but, according to Najam Sethi, editor of the weekly newspaper Friday Times, such support is present under the surface. "The angry Jihadis of the Islamic world," he wrote, "... strain to hide their true emotions: the bully on the block has met its comeuppance."

And if the "bully" should come to call, there are plenty of precedents for a violent backlash: the burning down of the US Embassy in 1979, the destruction 10 years later of the US Information Centre. Less than two years ago, in November 1999, after the US had cajoled the United Nations to clamp sanctions on the Taliban to try to persuade them to hand over Osama bin Laden, rockets were fired at the (rebuilt) US Information Centre.

Islamabad is a small, green, planned city, about as exciting as Milton Keynes. Yesterday, it remained outwardly calm and placid under balmy September skies. But there are soldiers on the streets as well as armed policemen today. Pale-faced foreigners provoke hard stares when they step out of their hotels. Foreign companies investing in Pakistan, the few that have not been scared away by the political tension and economic frailty, have started shipping their staff home. "I can confirm," said a spokesman for British Petroleum, which is involved in oil and gas exploration in Pakistan, "that BP has sent home all its expatriate staff from Pakistan ... I could not reveal the exact numbers."

More straws in the wind: British Airways suspended flights to Islamabad following Tuesday's attacks. New Zealand has suspended its cricket team's forthcoming tour of Pakistan because of security fears for the players and staff.

It is becoming clear that the fears are not groundless. Ali, who works in a car rental office in the capital, said, "I am in favour of supporting the US request for help because of the events of Tuesday but the religious parties will resist. Sensible people want to support America, but the religious parties always resist when "gorasahib" ("white sahib") wants to come to the country."

"Most people reject the idea of America flying over the country," said Athar Javed, a hotel clerk, "because we are Muslims. Even if there was proof that Osama bin Laden was guilty, most people would still not like it."

"General Musharraf is in a very bad position," said Kamran, an MBA student in Islamabad. "He can't go against America, but if he supports America against the Taliban, the mass of people would be very angry. Most people's impression of America is not good because they believe Americans are against Muslims. Americans are pretending they are peace lovers but they are not."

Pakistani commentators were in broad agreement about Musharraf's painful dilemma.

"The problem for General Musharraf and his colleagues," wrote Shafqat Mahmood in The News, "is that it may no longer be possible to steer a middle course. One side will be angry, whether it is the Jihadis or the Americans ... the Taliban are not likely to hand in Osama, and our very own Jihadis are not likely to roll over and play dead. An irresistible force is going to meet an immovable object. Caught in between would be the Government of Pakistan."

"The use of Pakistani airspace for an attack on Afghanistan ... will put the Musharraf government in a situation of 'between the hard rock and the deep blue sea'," wrote a correspondent in the same newspaper.

Yesterday, the Pakistan Army's corps commanders held an emergency meeting at its general headquarters in Islamabad to discuss the ramifications of any co-operation with the US.

Meanwhile, the military security agencies are trying to gauge the likely dimensions of any backlash, to such co-operation by the religious parties. They are said to be particularly concerned about a possible violent reaction should America seek to go so far as to land its troops on Pakistani soil.