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Can Pakistan's chief thwart Islamic radicals?

Friday's bombing in Karachi underscores the difficulty in reining in the militants.

President Pervez Musharraf is taking steps to halt two decades of Pakistani military support for Islamic militants.

But it's clearly an uphill effort. On Friday, a car bomb exploded outside the US consulate in Karachi, the fourth attack against foreigners in Pakistan since January. The attack underscores concerns among Pakistani analysts about General Musharraf's ability to sustain his commitment to rein in Islamic militants, not just those fighting India in Kashmir, but elsewhere in the country.

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A previously unknown group, Al Qanoon (The Law) claimed responsibility for Friday's attack, which it said was the start of a holy war against the US and its "puppet ally."

"It sounds a warning to the Pakistani government as well [as to the US], as we are an ally of the international coalition against terrorism," said Pakistan's Brigadier Mukhtar Sheikh.

In recent weeks, Musharraf has managed to slow down the infiltration of militant groups heading into Indian Kashmir – thereby avoiding a war with its larger neighbor and nuclear rival. But yesterday, 23 people died in Kashmir – most of them civilians and Islamic militants – in separate attacks.

"Opinion is split among the [Pakistani] intelligence corps whether to wash their hands permanently of the freedom fighter outfits or to put a temporary lid on their activities to appease international opinion," says one Pakistani intelligence source, who asked his name not be used.

Those within the Pakistan military favoring a temporary freeze contend militants may be needed again if the international community fails to persuade India to negotiate with Pakistan and Kashmiris to reach a political solution to the long-running dispute, which remains on the agenda of the UN Security Council.

"There is, however, a definite order from the military hierarchy to put the militant groups on a tight leash not only because of external considerations but also for the sake of internal peace and stability," the source says.

Musharraf is attempting to reverse more than a decade of institutional and public support.

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Intelligence sources estimate between 3,000 to 5,000 motivated hard-core fighters are aligned with about a dozen Islamic groups, which have thrived on donations from the public as well as support from the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Many of the fighters are veterans of Afghan jihad (holy war) that ended in 1989 with the defeat of the former Soviet Union. Others were trained in camps set up by the jihadi groups inside Pakistan and in Islamabad-controlled part of Kashmir.

When military ruler Pervez Musharraf joined the US-led war on terrorism after Sept. 11 and abandoned the Afghan Taliban, India skillfully exploited the situation to bring international pressure on Pakistan.

In January, about a month after India massed troops on the borders on the heels of a terrorist attack on the parliament in New Delhi, President Musharraf banned the two main militant groups blamed by New Delhi for the assault.

Lashkar-I-Tayyaba (Army of the Pure) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Prophet Mohammad) were outlawed along with three other groups.

The Lashkar was founded by Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, a professor of Islamic studies at Pakistan's prestigious University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore. He fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and had close links with wealthy Saudis, who funded his mission generously.

Another Pakistani Islamic scholar Maulana Masood Azhar, who spent years in jail in India, founded the Jaish in April 2000 after New Delhi freed him in a swap for hostages of an Indian airliner hijacked to Afghanistan in December 1999.

The dusty town of Muridke, near Lahore, was the headquarters of the Lashkar. Annual jihad gatherings attended by tens of thousands of followers were held there for recruitment purposes.

After the January ban, the Pakistani government closed Muridke camp and subsidiary offices of the Lashkar and other groups in the country.

But Pakistani intelligentsia still complain that the US spawned the jihadi culture with dollars, arms, and propaganda to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.

"When the Americans abandoned the jihadi groups they had created, the ISI started channeling the trained and indoctrinated manpower into Kashmir for its objectives," says a pro-jihadi leader, speaking on condition of anonymity.

And Musharraf has repeatedly vowed that, "No Pakistani can even think of abandoning the Kashmir cause," to allay fears that his regime was preparing a deal with India over Kashmir.

Political analyst Mohammad Afzal Niazi says the Musharraf government can achieve "a degree of success" on its pledge to stop infiltration across the Line of Control in Kashmir. "But no government in Pakistan can completely halt cross-border movement in Kashmir, which is one of the most difficult terrains in the world and where people on both sides do not accept the division of their homeland."

Still, in a sign that tensions on the India-Pakistan border may be easing, Indian Army officials said yesterday that soldiers are being allowed to go on leave for the first time since December.

• Material from the wire services was used in this report.