World gives a soft ride to Pakistan's coup leader

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The Independent Online

TEN DAYS after the coup in Pakistan, Western capitals are still trying to assess the man who looks set to rule the country for the indefinite future. So far, General Pervez Musharraf has received the kind of press that most military rulers who have just overthrown a democratically elected leader can only dream of.

TEN DAYS after the coup in Pakistan, Western capitals are still trying to assess the man who looks set to rule the country for the indefinite future. So far, General Pervez Musharraf has received the kind of press that most military rulers who have just overthrown a democratically elected leader can only dream of.

The first to set his bandwagon rolling were the Americans. "I have seen some things which characterise General Musharraf as an extremist," said the United States ambassador in Islamabad, William Milam, shortly after military rule was announced. "I believe he is quite the opposite. I am confident that the general is a moderate man acting out of patriotic motivations."

Those who know the general testify to his pro-US leanings. A former Australian defence attaché in Islamabad, Colonel Brian Cloughly, relates how a Pakistani major once launched an anti-US tirade in the general's hearing. When the general learnt that the major was going to take up a post at the United Nations, he blocked the move. The general has a brother and a son living in the US.

One of the few people who have so far cast doubt on the general and his coup is Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, who earlier this week strongly advocated Pakistan's suspension from the Commonwealth. Even the human rights campaign group Amnesty International took a more forgiving approach, writing an open letter to General Musharraf saying that "this is a unique opportunity to rebuild respect for the rule of law and human rights".

Pakistan's new rulers are now keen to win over European opinion. But the general's public relations managers also need to watch their backs at home. The problem was exemplified by the general's first photo call, at his home with relatives and his two dogs. Western newspapers lapped up the images of the family man. But Islamic groups complained that he was seen handling dogs - which they consider unclean.

Nor did they appreciate General Musharraf's remark to a Turkish television station that he was an admirer of Ataturk - the man who took religion out of state affairs in Turkey. Qazi Hussain Ahmed, the leader of Pakistan's biggest Islamic based party, Jamaat-I-Islami, warned: "We will not allow secularism. Only the Islamic system will work. Those who admire Ataturk should keep this in mind."

Other Islamic groups welcome the general's takeover because they admire his lack of democratic credentials. But the hardliners are unlikely to support him for long. In his address to the nation, the general made it clear that he stands in the Islamic mainstream. He urged Islamic scholars to "curb elements which are exploiting religion for vested interests". The comment was clearly aimed at the militant Islamic groups. But it will also have gone down well with the US State Department.

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