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Bhutto to Project Pakistan As Wall Against Militant Islam

In US visit, leader will try to patch up strained relations

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PAKISTANI Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's visit to Washington this week may be one of the most crucial diplomatic challenges of her political career.

If nothing else, the trip will be busy. Ms. Bhutto intends to start the slow process of patching up relations with the United States and restoring economic and military aid, cut off by Washington in 1990 in a dispute over Pakistan's suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Yet back home, Bhutto is facing criticism from hard-liners for putting US ties ahead of Pakistan's security. And the deaths of two Americans in a spate of violence in Karachi makes all these tasks more complicated.

The Bhutto administration also faces a stagnating economy. Pakistan's tense stand-off with India over the Kashmir issue continues to drain the economy in the form of a large defense budget.

A powerful drug mafia has become increasingly determined to undermine her government. She claims her administration has stepped up the fight against drug traffickers.

During the past year, Bhutto has won the wrath of some of the country's powerful drug barons by extraditing them to the US to face charges. In a display of cooperation with US authorities, Pakistan yesterday extradited two alleged drug leaders to the US.

In her meetings with President Clinton April 11, Bhutto is expected to raise the subject of over $1 billion that Pakistan has paid for the purchase of up to 71 F-16 fighter jets and other military hardware. Due to the sanctions, neither the equipment has been delivered nor the money refunded. Senior Pakistani officials are hoping that the US administration will find another buyer to purchase the planes so that Islamabad could be issued a refund.

In her visit with congressional leaders, she hopes to project Pakistan as a valuable ally with whom the US could build new bridges of cooperation.

She will likely try to depict her government as a bulwark against the region's rising Islamic fundamentalism and has publicly criticized Islamic militants trying to undermine the stability. Her February extradition to the US of Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the alleged mastermind of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, has strengthened her image.

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