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Pakistan's nuclear bomb program gives Bush a touchy problem

Now that it's all but certified that Pakistan has joined the nuclear weapons club by building what many call the "Islamic Bomb," the Bush administration has a ticklish problem on its hands. Stated very simply, the problem is how to get relations back on track after cutting Pakistan off from more than half a billion dollars a year in American military and economic aid. Under U.S. law, the aid was cut off automatically Oct. 1 when Bush failed to assure Congress that Pakistan didn't have nuclear weapons and wasn't developing any.

The Pakistanis aren't too happy about losing all that aid money, especially since they see themselves as going out on a limb to help out Washington in the Persian Gulf crisis. To no one's surprise, the issue was prominent in the campaigning for Wednesday's parliamentary elections in Pakistan and both sides generated a lot of heat by accusing Washington of hypocrisy and meddling in the country's internal affairs.

The fact is, Pakistan has been working on nuclear weapons for years, ever since India exploded a nuclear device 16 years ago. And despite repeated official denials, the Pakistani nuclear program has been anything but a secret. In fact, the program has been widely and openly supported by the Pakistani public, which felt that if archenemy India can have a nuclear bomb then they should have one too.

So for several years now when President Reagan or Bush got their foreign aid requests okayed by telling Congress that Pakistan wasn't in the process of developing nuclear weapons, there must have been a lot of winking and smiling going on. Everyone knew otherwise. Everyone also knew about the increasingly credible reports of widespread human rights violations as well as a dramatic upsurge in drug trafficking under the regime of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.

But the reason for the administration's yearly charade with Congress was clear enough. Pakistan was the pipeline for sending American money and weapons to the guerrillas fighting Soviet Communism and its supporters in Afghanistan. Washington had no intention of shutting down the pipeline.

But with the Russians out of Afghanistan and fighting and their friends in far-off places not so important anymore, Bush apparently saw no need to go through the charade again. After all, he had the gulf crisis to worry about and already enough troubles in Congress with the budget.

And the evidence of Pakistan's bomb program had gotten so blatant that even a Congress well disposed toward Pakistan couldn't ignore it. By the beginning of this month, it was becoming widely known in Washington that Pakistan had put together its so-called "Islamic bomb" sometime in the spring, at a time when increased tensions with India appeared to be setting the stage for war over the long-disputed Kashmir region.

Under the circumstances, Bush had little choice but to withhold the usual certification to Congress about Pakistan's nuclear program. After that, the aid cutoff was automatic under a 1985 law barring assistance to nation's seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

So now what? Does the United States simply abandon what was once its third largest foreign aid recipient, an ally that's strategically located, provides Washington with crucial intelligence gathering facilities and has proven its friendship over the years?

Apparently not.

Even as the extent of Pakistan's nuclear program was being revealed, U.S. officials speaking off the record told reporters in Washington and Islamabad that a review of the aid cutoff was likely shortly after the results of this week's parliamentary elections are translated into a new government.

The fact that Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party lost the elections decisively should make little or no difference in determining when and how to resume U.S. aid to Islamabad. The important thing from Washington's point of view is that independent election observers, many of them from the United States, declared the balloting to be fair and honest despite Bhutto's claims of fraud.

One of the stranger stories out of the Persian Gulf region this past week was the one about Saddam Hussein's dream. You saw only a mention of it in the St. Petersburg Times and there's a good reason why.

The story goes like this:

The Iraqi dictator woke up one morning recently and told his aides that he had a dream, and in it he spoke with the prophet Mohammed. Mohammed told him that his invasion forces in Kuwait had their missiles pointed in the wrong direction.

Saddam Hussein's supposed dream was widely interpreted by many as meaning that Iraq was getting ready to withdraw from Kuwait and that the Gulf crisis was about to come to a peaceful end.

The problem with all this is that the story appeared in a newspaper published by exiled Kuwaitis who would like nothing better than to portray Saddam Hussein as a scatter-brained idiot who makes life-and-death decisions based on what kind of dream he had that night or what side of the bed he got up on. In short, the story had zero credibility and that's why you didn't read about it in this newspaper until now.

The story did get around, though, mainly on television, and even affected the stock markets and the price of crude oil. The international oil market, as well as the Persian Gulf, is a strange place.