ISLAMABAD, Pakistan—Having led a military coup of his own, Pakistan's president reassigned all of his army's corps commanders Wednesday while continuing to deny that his support for the U.S. campaign against Afghanistan had opened huge rifts in the ruling armed forces.
By agreeing to support the United States and giving permission for U.S. forces to begin using two airfields in Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf has eased Washington's concerns over his government. But he has enraged militant Muslims who have rallied mobs in several cities in recent days to denounce him.
The decision to open Pakistan to U.S. forces represents a significant step for Musharraf, who staged a bloodless coup in 1999 against a democratically elected government. A senior Pakistani military official said hundreds of American troops already had moved into the country.
During an emergency Cabinet meeting, the general said he would deploy tough paramilitary forces, known as Rangers or Border Police, to crack down on extremist Muslim organizations and those who created unrest.
Singling out the damage and riots in Quetta, a southern border city where six people were shot dead by police this week, he blamed the incidents on "slackness on the part of law-enforcement agencies."
The eight commanders reassigned on Wednesday included the commander in Quetta, as well as those in Lahore and Peshawar, hotbeds of unrest.
The move follows Musharraf's decision Sunday to replace three senior generals, including the head of the intelligence service, apparently in an effort to erode dissent among senior officers or prevent a possible putsch.
In a country haunted by ethnic and religious differences, the unity of the armed forces remains vital. For decades the army has preserved ethnic stability and the secular state.
Suspicions about fire
Consistent reports of a dissent among senior officers were fueled at dawn Wednesday after a three-hour fire destroyed the archives at the Directorate of Military Training at the army's headquarters at Rawalpindi, near the capital.
An army spokesman blamed the blaze on a short circuit in a storeroom. But retired army officers suspected sabotage.
Military sources said the new commanders are all known to be fiercely loyal to Musharraf, known for moving swiftly to stifle unrest among his staff.
Musharraf enraged many Muslims when he backed the anti-terrorist coalition. Radicals immediately seized on his decision to fuel their ambitions of converting secular Pakistan into an Islamic state along Taliban lines.
Musharraf's reshuffle on Sunday removed and sidelined three influential generals believed to have been sympathetic to Islamic ambitions or willing to use the crisis to remove him.
"There is peace and tranquility in the country. Life is going on normally. What better proof do you want?" said Foreign Ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan.
Reality was somewhat different.
The air raids on Afghanistan have catalyzed Pakistan's ever-present ethnic and religious passions in a country where a large Pashtun population sympathizes with the mainly Pashtun Taliban. Extremist clerics, whose followers make up a small but vocal part of the 140 million Pakistanis, have exploited the crisis to bolster support.
Fear that terrorists might strike in the capital prompted authorities this week to reinforce security at key buildings, hotels and embassies. Concrete barricades went up to stop suicide bombers. Barbed wire rolls and checkpoints aim to stop protesters.
"Protests are inevitable in this Afghan situation, but less than 5 percent do go out into the streets to demonstrate. Going out into the streets is one thing, but quiet disagreement [with the government] is another," said Pervez Iqbal Cheema, president of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute.