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Strains Intensify in Pakistan's Ethnic Patchwork

Protests and violence occurred throughout Pakistan in the wake of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination. Bhutto was leading the Pakistan People's Party as it campaigned for the Jan. 8 national elections.

Asma Jahangir, an internationally renowned human rights advocate, said she first grasped the depth of the current ethnic tension when she attended Bhutto's funeral and heard crowds at the airport shouting at soldiers: "Leave Sindh! We don't want to be part of you! You can keep your generals!"

"It's an extremely fearful atmosphere in Pakistan," Jahangir said. "There is terrible resentment in Sindh, and if Musharraf's government stays it will just keep getting worse. I have never been this pessimistic. I have never been this depressed about Pakistan."

Bhutto herself believed ardently in the unity of Pakistan and enjoyed nationwide support. While other parties appealed to particular ethnic groups, her Pakistan People's Party had backing across the country. After her return from exile in October, she crisscrossed Pakistan. The crowds were especially large in her native Sindh, but they were sizable in the other provinces, too.

Bhutto's successors at the head of the party now have to strike a difficult balance, acknowledging the anger felt by Sindhis but also preventing that anger from becoming so strong that it makes other ethnic groups feel unwelcome.

"She was the leader of Pakistan, but she belonged to Sindh," said Nasreen Chandio, a lawmaker from the Pakistan People's Party in Karachi. "Now the people of Sindh have become orphans."

Chandio said calls for a separate Sindhi nation have grown among her constituents since Bhutto's death, "but we respect her will to unite the federation, despite all of our anger."

Sherry Rehman, spokeswoman for the party, said party leaders have been "appealing to our Sindhi supporters not to blame the Punjabis, to see them as our brothers," adding, "We are seeking to unite the country."

But that will be difficult. Resentment of Punjab is widespread in the other provinces, which feel they supply more than their fair share of natural resources and get little in return from the Punjabis, who run the army and, by extension, the country.

"Pakistan is like a house," said Haleemi, the trucker. "It was established for us. But when the army was building it, they didn't give us any choices. They chose the color of the carpet, the design of the kitchen, the style of the windows. We have to live there, but they make all the selections."

The anti-Punjabi sentiment is, in many ways, an extension of animosity that has evolved over the past year. It started out as anti-Musharraf, grew to become anti-military and has now burst into view as anti-Punjabi.

Chema, the unemployed slum resident, believes the only solution is for Sindh to break away from Pakistan and form its own nation. "We will be separate, and we will solve all our basic problems very easily," he said.

That view is not widely held. More common is the belief that Sindh, Baluchistan and North-West Frontier Province need greater autonomy from the central government.

"There has never been an equal and just distribution of resources among the federating units, and that's something that causes big resentment," said Afzal Khan Lala, a senior Pashtun nationalist politician from North-West Frontier Province.

His party advocates control of just four basic functions for the central government in Islamabad: foreign policy, defense, currency and communications. The rest would be left to the provinces to figure out on their own. Without autonomy, he said, "the resentment among smaller provinces can grow to dangerous proportions, putting at risk the survival of Pakistan."

Zafarullah Khan, executive director of Pakistan's Center for Civic Education, has a different solution: an end to military rule, and elections that give minority groups a proper say.

"If the powers that be really want a federal Pakistan, they're going to have to give democracy a chance," Khan said. "Democracy is the way to keep Pakistan together."

Correspondent Emily Wax in Lahore, special correspondent Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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