Pakistan driven to the brink by drug barons and fanatics

As Benazir Bhutto loses her grip, even Imran Khan, cricketing hero and political novice, is being touted as the country's possible saviour Citizens compare her 25 trips abroad with the four she has made to her home town

As Pakistan threatens to implode in a frenzy of sectarian and ethnic slaughter, opponents accuse Benazir Bhutto of fretting too much over her prime ministerial image, the colour of her nail polish and the cut of her shimmering salwar kameez.

In Karachi on Saturday, 22 prayer-goers in two separate mosques were massacred by fanatics from a rival Muslim sect. Citizens of Karachi angrily compare Ms Bhutto's 25 trips abroad with the four she has made to her troubled home town. Discontent with Ms Bhutto and the conservative opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, is so high that Imran Khan, the cricketer turned orthodox Muslim, is being touted as the country's only possible saviour. Never mind that he is a novice in the blood-sport of Pakistani politics.

If Pakistan seems a mess, it is. Under Ms Bhutto's pallid leadership the country's provinces have fallen under the sway of suspected heroin smugglers, feudal chieftains, land-grabbers and religious fundamentalists. Sindh province is spiralling into anarchy, with rival ethnic and sectarian gangs shooting more than 150 people in the past month.

Along the Afghan border, thousands of tribespeople went on a rampage recently because the government had the audacity to seize several tons of hashish and opium which belonged to them. Sectarian persecution is rising: no sooner were two Christians, one a 14-year old boy, spared a hanging for blasphemy on Thursday than another Christian was arrested on similar charges.

According to airline officials, the two freed Christians have flown to Germany to avoid certain death at the hands of Muslim extremists. Salamat Masih, 14, and Rehmat Masih, 40, whose death sentences were overturned by the Lahore High Court, left Islamabad in secrecy on a Pakistan International Airlines flight to Frankfurt. A spokesman at the German embassy in Islamabad said they had applied for visitors' visas, which had been granted. He could not say whether Germany was their final destination.

The list of Pakistan's woes lengthens daily. Unemployment among youths runs close to 40 per cent; they are angry and make easy converts to religious extremism. Inflation has hit 13 per cent. The state health and education system is nearing collapse, yet Ms Bhutto sees fit to spend £1.5bn on French submarines to keep the military, a major player in Pakistani politics, on her side.

An agricultural tax which would have raised money for the treasury and broken up the feudal lords' vast estates has not been enforced because Ms Bhutto needs the many votes these squires can deliver with a crack of the whip.

Despite the appearance that Pakistan is sliding deeper into chaos, Ms Bhutto is likely to last out the remaining three years of her job. During her last term as prime minister, Ms Bhutto was forced out in 1990 by the President, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who had broad powers. This time, however, the President, Farouq Leghari, is an ally drawn from the top echelon of Ms Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. So far, he is sticking firmly to her side.

Pakistan's woeful economy has made the generals unwilling to meddle in politics. With the Soviet Union shattered, Pakistan's status as a frontline defender against Communism is finished. Washington is no longer ready to tolerate military coups in Pakistan in the pursuit of its Cold War objectives. Foreign aid from Europe and the United States would almost certainly dry up if the army toppled Ms Bhutto.

Nor does the Prime Minister's biggest rival, Mr Sharif, pose any immediate threat. A campaign of strikes and public protest, begun in autumn by Mr Sharif against alleged state corruption, petered out. Mr Sharif's conservative Pakistan Muslim League is now riddled with defectors and mischief-makers. Ms Bhutto, on seeing her rival falter, pounced. "The days of being a sloppy liberal are gone," Ms Bhutto vowed.

Thousands of pro-Sharif activists were jailed after the autumn protests, and Ms Bhutto trained her sights on the Sharif family's industrial empire. Several of the Sharif family were arrested, including the former prime minister's father, Mian Sharif, though he was later released. "If the [Bhutto] government has succeeded on one count, it is in its policy of destroying our family business," Mr Sharif complained recently.

Ms Bhutto's newest challenge comes from Mr Khan, who led Pakistan to World Cup victory in 1992. Lately the cricket star has shed his image as carefree Western socialite and now he attacks the British colonialists for leaving Pakistanis with "an inferiority complex". He recently advised: "What I say to the youth is learn English by a means of education but don't try to become an Englishman." Mr Khan has allied himself with a former Pakistan spymaster, General Hamid Ghul, known for his militant pan-Islamic theories. The cricket hero and ex-spy chief are forming a pressure group to fight state corruption and promote social reform, though many Pakistanis suspect that the general is grooming the charismatic cricketer for the role of prime minister.

Aides to Ms Bhutto and Mr Sharif are worried enough about the swell of popular support for the sports hero, especially among the middle class, to have launched a vicious and - so far - ineffective slander campaign against Mr Khan. The main criticism seems to be that the handsome cricketer enjoyed too many Western girlfriends.

Until recently Ms Bhutto seems to have been hostage to the small but increasingly virulent religious fundamentalist fringe parties. Although the Islamic parties received a small share of the vote in the last elections, their militancy overshadows their actual support. As a first step, Ms Bhutto last month banned all foreign funding for Pakistan's thousands of religious schools and authorities are tracking down the ones preaching sectarian hatred.

It may be too little too late, but after the two Christians had their blasphemy convictions overturned, Ms Bhutto ordered police to arrest more than 100 suspected religious extremists throughout Punjab and in Karachi. Most are militants belonging to hard-line Sunni and Shia Muslim communities who have allegedly been responsible for the latest spate of communal murders. But having allowed religious clashes to drag on for so many months, Ms Bhutto may find herself powerless to halt the communal and ethnic feuds. The blood-letting has gone on for too long.

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