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Pakistan Braces as Bush Starts Visit

Pakistanis in Lahore observing a nationwide strike called to protest Danish cartoons of Muhammad chant anti-U.S. slogans ahead of President Bush's arrival. While in the country, Bush is expected to praise Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, for his help in fighting terrorism and to play down differences over democratic reforms.
Pakistanis in Lahore observing a nationwide strike called to protest Danish cartoons of Muhammad chant anti-U.S. slogans ahead of President Bush's arrival. While in the country, Bush is expected to praise Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, for his help in fighting terrorism and to play down differences over democratic reforms. (By Mohsin Raza -- Reuters)

Unlike India's growing relationship with the United States, Pakistan's has been based almost exclusively on the two nations' military alliance. In exchange for helping hunt down terrorists, Bush has provided direct aid to Pakistan and offered to sell it F-16 fighter jets.

Aides said Bush was calculating that this relationship was worth the risk of visiting the Pakistani capital during a period of violence. Security will be tight, however, and several U.S. officials privately raised concerns about the safety of Bush and his entourage.

Unlike Bill Clinton, who urged Musharraf to make political reforms when he visited here as president in 2000, Bush is expected to focus on strengthening military cooperation.

U.S. authorities have pressed Pakistan for months to accept more U.S. military assistance in counterterrorism operations. Over the past year, the U.S. and Pakistani militaries have made strides in developing a common electronic system for tracking their forces on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. They also have expanded a training program to share information on counterterrorism techniques.

But Pakistan has continued to balk at the idea of combined operations with U.S. forces, a sensitive issue for many Pakistanis. Meanwhile, the Musharraf government has made only limited efforts to hunt down or attack suspected militant hideouts in the volatile, semiautonomous tribal regions.

Even though thousands of Pakistani troops have been sent to the border area, a senior U.S. military officer said, most have tended to stay in garrisons rather than conduct aggressive patrols. Most of the al-Qaeda members caught or killed by Pakistan have been in settled areas of the country, the officer added.

Up to now, U.S. officials have appeared reluctant to push Musharraf too hard in public, regarding him and the Pakistani military as bulwarks against Islamic radicalism. He is seen as constrained by the fierce independence of border tribesmen and the strength of hard-line Islamic parties that control North-West Frontier province and dominate Baluchistan province.

In 2004, a highly publicized army attack on a suspected al-Qaeda border hideout backfired when villagers and Islamic fighters fought back, killing 46 troops. Earlier this week, military helicopters and troops assaulted another tribal outpost, and Pakistani officials said 45 Islamic militants were killed.

Even so, some outside experts on Pakistan detect an emerging divide in the Bush administration over how hard to lean on Musharraf.

"I think there's more concern at the Pentagon than at the State Department on the huge gap between Musharraf's rhetoric and reality," said Samina Ahmed, of the nonprofit International Crisis Group.

With elections scheduled next year in Pakistan, some experts said U.S. officials should begin working to strengthen the secular political parties that have been weakened under military rule.

"It's in our interest to begin to look to a post-Musharraf period and not to put all our chips on him," said Stephen P. Cohen, of the Brookings Institution. "The senior leadership here in Washington seems to believe that he's our only option."

Graham reported from Washington. Correspondent John Lancaster in Islamabad contributed to this report .


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