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Musharraf's US trip in troubled times seen as sign of growing strength

 ISLAMABAD, November 7 (Internews): For a man ruling 140m Pakistani
 Muslims torn between a reluctant military alliance with the US and
 Islamists who daily urge his ouster for siding with 'infidels,'
 President Pervez Musharraf is radiating an impressive calm.
 After a taut, nervous start in September, when he took the hazardous
 gamble of switching Pakistan's allegiance from Taliban to US, he has
 grown in confidence to the point where he plans to leave Pakistan this
 week for the first time since the start of the war.
 Officials said here Wednesday he will set off for New York on Thursday
 to address the United Nations General Assembly, and to see at first hand
 the destruction wrought at the World Trade Center.
 And on Saturday, in a sign of his crucial importance to America's war,
 he will have his first meeting with President George Bush.
 American forces rely on Pakistan's airspace, remote air bases in its
 western desert as staging posts for commandos, and intelligence gathered
 by Pakistani agents.
 The 58-year-old general will leave behind a country where Friday Prayers
 have become a prelude to protests by thousands of Islamists who march
 from the mosques to burn effigies of both Bush and Musharraf while
 brandishing photographs of Osama bin Laden.
 The possibility that he could be unseated haunts Western officials, for
 it could leave Pakistan's fate, and that of America's war, in the hands
 of generals less resolute in their support of the US.
 Or, in a nightmare scenario that American officials hardly dare to
 contemplate, it could pave the way for a militant Islamic leadership to
 take over Pakistan and the nuclear devices it successfully tested in
 1998.
 No wonder Musharraf now has clear US support even though being condemned
 by it for his military coup in late 1999 and so disparaged by President
 Clinton that Clinton was reluctant to be photographed shaking his hand
 during a stopover in Pakistan last year.
 He was still deeply distrusted by Washington right up to Sept 11 because
 he led a military government with close ties to the Taliban.
 "Men either grow or diminish in crisis and Musharraf is one who has
 grown," says a US diplomat in Islamabad who has talked to the general
 frequently since he metamorphosed, almost overnight, from an
 embarrassment to a man central to America's hope for victory.
 "He's been straight, he's delivered what he's promised and he hasn't
 faltered. The only question now is whether he can carry all the other
 generals with him. Does he really have their loyalties?" the diplomat
 says, requesting that he not be named.
 "Does he really know what they are doing, especially the ones who have
 links to the Taliban? These are things we don't know yet, and we don't
 know if he really knows them either."
 Entire echelons of the army officer corps, a power in Pakistan since it
 was founded in 1947 and the provider of military rulers for exactly half
 the years since are believed to have sympathies for the Taliban.
 US and Pakistan have had an on-again, off-again relationship for years,
 mostly off in the decade since the Soviet Union was defeated in
 Afghanistan and Washington lost the need for Pakistan as a base for
 supplying the Muslim guerrillas who were its allies then.
 For the moment, US is confident Musharraf has matters firmly in hand, or
 as firmly as any Pakistani ruler could, and his own demeanour seems to
 support that view.
 Far from the edgy, almost apologetic figure he cut in the televised
 announcement of his "full support" for the US, he has seemed almost
 bouncy, as if the crisis were something he had been waiting for all his
 life.
 Aides say that is the reflection of a deep-seated belief, rooted in a
 moderate but devout form of Islam, that God decides all matters.
 "He's a man who believes in destiny, and that all we do is ultimately in
 the hands of God," says Maj Gen Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's spokesman,
 who has known him since they were junior officers.
 "He has never been a particularly ambitious person, only a man who
 believes in letting fate decide where he's going." -Internews

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