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Despite Blasts, Many Pakistanis Eye U.S. Warily

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block. Relations between the United States and Pakistan have hit a serious setback. Yesterday, forces from the two sides, who are supposed to be allies, traded fire along the Afghan border. And that's just one of the problems complicating their joint war against Islamic militants. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Pakistan is becoming increasingly unstable.

PHILIP REEVES: Islamabad stands apart from every other city in Pakistan. It's clean and new with wide streets and leafy avenues. Yet, this orderly place is now consumed by an unsettling sense of foreboding. The mood's been crystallized by a single event.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

REEVES: After the Marriott Hotel was destroyed Saturday, the Pakistani media labeled the attack as Pakistan's own 9/11. The wrecked hotel became Ground Zero. The bomb killed 53 people, including several Americans. There have been suicide bombings more deadly than this in Pakistan, but the Marriott truck bomber targeted the country's seat of power, close to parliament and the presidential palace.

BLOCK: This is as big as it comes, and the amount of planning that must have gone into it now convinces us that there are groups within al-Qaeda and the Taliban who are actually based in Punjab, the dominant province.

REEVES: That's writer and journalist Najam Sethi. Sethi is one of many prominent Pakistani political commentators who now believe the very survival of their country is threatened.

BLOCK: The state's writ is eroding. It has eroded physically in large parts of the country, but in other parts of the country, where theoretically the state is still there in the urban and settled areas, more and more people are taking the law into their hands and the state is unable to stop them from doing that.

REEVES: The feeling of foreboding is not only caused by headline-grabbing attacks. The economy's falling apart, and there's a pulse of daily low-level violent incidents, kidnappings, assassinations, attacks on the infrastructure. In large parts of Pakistan's northwest, the government has no control. Tanvir Ahmad Khan is a former Pakistan Foreign Secretary.

BLOCK: And we are talking of considerable stretches of land which are denied to the state authority.

REEVES: In some of those areas, there's a war going on. Pakistan's armed forces are trying to bombard the Taliban out of Bajaur, part of the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, and also Swat, once Pakistan's most beautiful tourist area. Hundreds have died, hundreds of thousands have fled. Pakistan's new president, Asif Ali Zardari, supports the U.S. and strongly condemns Islamist militancy. Speaking to the U.N. general assembly, he noted his wife Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by fanatical extremists.

REEVES: I am a husband who has seen the mother of his children give her life fighting the menace of terrorism that haunts the entire civilized world.

REEVES: Yet, he leads a country where anti-American sentiments are widespread. They've been stoked by a recent flurry of U.S. attacks across the Afghan border into Pakistan. The Pakistani military receives hundreds of millions a month in American funds. Yet yesterday, Pakistani and U.S. forces briefly traded fire along the Afghan border. This only highlights Zardari's dilemma. Some Pakistanis accept the battle against violent radical Islamists is Pakistan's war and that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are the real problem, not Pakistan's alliance with America. They include political analyst and writer Pervaiz Hoodbhoy.

D: I think that the United States shouldn't be in Iraq, it shouldn't be in Afghanistan. But even if the Americans go away from Afghanistan, the Taliban will remain, because they have an agenda and that agenda is to make Pakistan a religious state in their own image.

REEVES: Many other Pakistanis believe the militant violence shaking the foundations of their country is caused by their government's support for the U.S. And if the partnership with Washington ends, so will the bloodshed. The militants are exploiting this. An obscure group called the Fedayin al-Islam has said they carried out the Marriott bombing. It's issued a warning. There will be more bombings, it said, if Pakistan carries on cooperating with the United States. Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.