Bhutto cornered by a city at war

TIM McGIRK

Karachi

A businessman in Karachi was explaining the difference between the "page- three" photospread in Pakistani and British tabloids. "In England, you have pretty girls showing their busts, am I not correct?" he said, drawing curves in the air. "But in Pakistani tabloids we have pictures of dead bodies, ones that have been shot up and tortured. It is a pity we don't have the girls instead.''

The businessman was looking at a page-three photo in a Karachi daily several days ago and happened to recognise the corpse, disfigured by bullet holes. "That was the bastard who snatched my car!" he exclaimed. On the radio the next morning the businessman heard that all of Karachi was to be shut down by a general strike to protest at the killing, by Pakistani security forces, of this "truth-lover''. "To me he was a car thief and probably a murderer - anything but a 'truth-lover'," he said. "But this is Karachi.''

The dead thief reportedly was an activist of the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM), which represents more than 20 million descendants of Indian Muslims who left their country after the 1947 partition to join in the dream of an Islamic republic in Pakistan. It was a dream from which they were excluded. Even today, the Mohajirs are dismissed as unwanted foreigners by many of Pakistan's native Punjabis, Sindhis, Baluchis and Pathans.

The leader of the MQM is Altaf Hussain, 41, who lives in exile in Britain. His neighbours in Mill Hill, north London, might well identify Mr Hussain as a recluse, a burly, mustached figure in baggy salwar trousers, who rarely leaves his home. And yet, from this genteel suburb, Mr Hussain can flex his awesome power over Karachi's 12 million inhabitants.

With a single telephone call or fax, the benign-looking Mr Hussain can conjure up a strike that will close down Karachi's port, and every cotton mill, corner shop and watermelon seller in the city. He can stop its auto-rickshaws and buses.

And his MQM militants, with their Kalashnikovs and their rocket-propelled grenades, have turned parts of Karachi into battle zones, where the paramilitary police dare to venture only in armoured convoys. His activists can joyride in the BMWs of Karachi's scared elite, and nobody will stop them. Mr Hussain has the power to do just about everything in Karachi - where more than 1,400 people have been killed this year alone - but he cannot impose peace.

Peace in the country's largest city depends on the Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto. After stalling for several months, hoping in vain that her security forces would crush the MQM's network of armed militants and thousands of Mohajir sympathisers, Ms Bhutto finally may have opted to reopen negotiations. This weekend, the government's final proposals are being passed to MQM negotiators. Ms Bhutto's move is long overdue; not only have the government's brutal tactics turned the Mohajirs, who are a majority, solidly behind the MQM, but Ms Bhutto's paramilitary police force in Karachi now has a reputation for being as deadly as the city's many armed gangs. Accusations of police torture, extortion and murder are mounting.

Until now, Ms Bhutto has given crossed signals to the MQM. Her promises of halting the "search and cordon" operations by police in predominately Mohajir neighbourhoods have been broken. Also, an MQM leader who was to fly to London and brief Mr Hussain on the exchange of letters between the local MQM chiefs and the government had his passport confiscated temporarily. An MQM spokesman, Shoaib Bukhari, said: "Benazir Bhutto is trying to buy time so that she can split the MQM and eliminate our leaders."

Before restarting talks the MQM are demanding Ms Bhutto agree to 18 demands, the most crucial of these being: that the government review the hundreds of allegedly bogus criminal cases lodged against their Mohajir leaders; that Karachi city elections be held (in which the MQM undoubtedly would trounce Ms Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples' Party), and that the 700 MQM activists in jail should be freed. "If the government's reply is positive, we will resume negotiations," said the Mohajirs' chief negotiator, Ajmal Dehlavi. By giving more rights to the Mohajirs, Ms Bhutto knows she could lose her power base in Sindh, her native province. Yet if she does not, Ms Bhutto could lose not just a province but a country.

The army is worried that the lawlessness in Karachi is spreading like a virus throughout Pakistan. One senior air force general publicly urged Ms Bhutto to seek a political end to the city's ethnic fighting, and in Pakistan, which has a history of coups, when a general speaks, the prime minister must listen.

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