Cleric names his price for ruling with Musharraf

Phil Reeves
Wednesday 13 November 2002 01:00

The Islamic cleric Fazl-ur Rahman is sitting cross-legged on a bed happily outlining his agenda as the aspiring Prime Minister of Pakistan, one of the world's geo-political hotspots and a focal point in the American-led war against al-Qa'ida.

The mullah is undeterred by the fact that the White House, Pentagon, FBI, CIA and the State Department heartily wish that he, and the religious bloc he leads, would go away.

Nor is he bothered by the discomfort he is inflicting on the President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, and the intelligence services, in their efforts to build a compliant civilian government after botching the rigging of last month's elections.

Mr Rahman made clear to The Independent that he believes the outside world is wrong to label him as a pro- Taliban hardliner.

He says he believes the Americans have failed to link the 11 September atrocities with the Taliban, Osama bin Laden or al-Qa'ida. His coalition is demanding the Americans leave Pakistan. But he describes himself and his colleagues as "politicians, democrats, moderates, and balanced people" who – like many Pakistanis – have "serious and honest differences" with the war on terror.

"We think US policies and measures are not eradicating terrorism, but creating more – for instance, by their aggression in Afghanistan," he said.

More than a month has elapsed since a wave of anti-Americanism fused with popular disenchantment towards mainstream parties to deliver an unprecedented electoral success for Mr Rahman and his alliance. The results left General Musharraf in a fix.

The religious parties stunned everyone by coming third, and winning in a province bordering Afghanistan. The General Musharraf-backed PML-Q won the most seats, followed by Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP).

With no party gaining an outright majority, the mullahs potentially hold the balance of power. They and Ms Bhutto are central players in the horse-trading gripping Pakistan.

Mr Rahman is playing for high stakes. He has set the price for his support as the Prime Minister's job, but will clearly settle for less.

Even so, the prospect of a strong Islamist bloc within government is shredding nerves.

The Pakistani military government appears to believe that it can live with the clerics. But the Americans, who exert strong influence on Pakistan, are not happy.

The "hardliner" label does not suit Mr Rahman, as it fails to take into account his pragmatic record. The 49-year-old son of a former provincial chief minister, he is an old-timer on Pakistan's political scene. The same cannot be said of some of his more radical fellow mullahs in the six-party religious alliance – the Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

The MMA campaigned on an anti-American platform, portraying the contest as an Islamist battle against the West.

The mullahs' new-found influence has complicated General Musharraf's difficult task of supporting Washington's drive to track down al-Qa'ida.

This policy will be under particular strain tomorrow when a 38-year-old Pakistani, Aimal Kansi, is due to be executed in Virginia for shooting dead two CIA employees in 1993. Pakistan, which is pressing for clemency, has tightened security around potential Western targets, fearing retaliation.

Yesterday hundreds from Jamiat-e-Islami party – part of Mr Rahman's bloc – marched through Multan in central Pakistan and threatened to act if the execution went ahead.

There are no easy solutions for Pakistan's military rulers. They can try to strong-arm people into the government-backed PML-Q to secure a straight majority. They can allow an alliance with Ms Bhutto's PPP. Or they can give the mullahs a slice of power.

The last option is particularly worrying to Pakistan's liberal intelligentsia, especially women. They fear a trade-off in which concessions will be made to the clerics' social demands in return for compromises on the job of Prime Minister.

Asked about this, Mr Rahman said his bloc would follow the recommendations of the Council of Islamic Ideology, a neglected constitutional body. They include firing employees who fail to pray five times a day, mandatory veils for women and a ban on music and un-Islamic posters on public transport.

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