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Stung by Aid Suspension, Pakistan Reviews Uneasy Dependence on US

EMERGING from a polling booth in Pakistan's election last week, Najibul Hussain said he was voting against Benazir Bhutto and the United States. ``We are masters of our own destiny,'' insisted the radio engineer bitter over US backing for the former prime minister, who suffered a stunning defeat.

``The United States has exploited our armed forces, our bureaucrats, and our politicians,'' said Mr. Najibul.

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Stung by a Washington's suspension of aid and angered over a controversial American election role, Pakistan wrestles with its uneasy dependence on the US. A government minister said yesterday Pakistan would stop paying interest on US loans if the Washington did not restore the aid.

Often a rocky relationship, ties between Pakistan and the US have hit a touchy new phase. Washington has suspended military aid to Pakistan because of new evidence that it has crossed the threshold of being a nuclear power, analysts say.

The new tensions come as Pakistan's importance as an US ally and front-line state has slipped since the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan last year. New differences also have emerged as the US has tried to restrain Pakistan in its confrontation with India over Kashmir.

During the election campaign, the freeze became a major issue when US senators threatened a total cutoff if Ms. Bhutto, ousted in August for abuse of power, was barred from running.

Washington capitalized on the aid issue to keep pressure on Pakistan to hold the elections, Western diplomats in Islamabad say. An international observer team said the poll was not marred by widespread rigging.

The vote triggered a new surge of anti-Americanism, Pakistani and Western observers say. The US support for Bhutto backfired and helped catapult the opposition Islamic Democratic Alliance into power, analysts say.

``Our relationship is going to be more realistic from now on,'' says a military official.

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Yet amid the denunciations of American domination, Pakistanis also cling to their US links.

Battered by the Gulf crisis, the country's economy can not absorb an immediate end to the more than $560 million in annual US assistance, Pakistani officials say.

In turn, many Pakistanis contend that in the Muslim world, where America's friends are few, and in the Middle East, where the US rallies support for its blockade of Iraq, Pakistan has gained new importance.

``This is the beginning of the reappraisal of US-Pakistan relations,'' says Abdul Qayyum, president of the Institute of Regional Studies in Islamabad. ``It's being accelerated now by the election.''

Political observers say Pakistan's reassessment has grown out of the hardening US opposition to the country's controversial nuclear program. For years, Pakistan has insisted its intentions are peaceful and that it is not building a nuclear device.

But in a country where the nuclear program is a source of national pride, there is widespread public support for the government's insistence on the right to develop a deterrent. Neighboring India detonated a device in 1974.

When the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan and war hung over South Asia, the US winked at mounting evidence that Pakistan had acquired the capability to build nuclear weapons. Under US law, President Bush is required to certify that Pakistan does not possess nuclear arms to continue assistance.

As the confrontation over Kashmir heated up earlier this year, Pakistan accelerated its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. It has now crossed the threshold where US officials can say Pakistan does not possess a nuclear device, informed sources say. India has done the same.

``The cutoff was based on new information about new activities during ... the year,'' says the source. ``The fact that they took it further that last year has made certification impossible.''

US and Pakistani officials say they hope a compromise can be reached, allowing the resumption of aid. Pakistan's economy, heavily dependent upon the Middle East for oil and funds from Pakistani workers, is on the brink of a sharp oil price hike and soaring inflation, economic analysts say.

Government officials say they want to wean Pakistan from foreign aid but over five years.

``To cut off aid in the short-run will be very serious,'' says Sartaj Aziz, an economist who has headed the Finance Ministry since Bhutto's dismissal. ``We need breathing room.''

The military already is feeling the pinch of suspended assistance, particularly for high-technology weapons.

Pakistan's Army hopes the US confrontation with Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait and the need for Muslim support in the Gulf will bring an American change of mind. Pakistan has so far sent only 2,000 of its 5,000 committed troops to the Middle East.

``The Pakistanis believe this is building up credit with the US, and they're correct,'' says a European diplomat. ``But it may not be all that much, and Pakistan would be wrong to deceive itself that it counts for all that much.''

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