Pakistan military enhances image with flood relief effort

NOWSHERA, Pakistan Tue Aug 17, 2010 9:32am EDT

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NOWSHERA, Pakistan (Reuters) - With little aid from a weak civilian government, many Pakistani flood victims are pinning hopes on the military as the only institution capable of helping them rebuild their lives.

Survivors of the country's worst floods in history are increasingly impatient over a lack of food and relief goods, and are criticizing President Asif Ali Zardari's government for mismanagement.

"The military has improved its stature because they know that it is the time that they can demonstrate to the people that they can come to their rescue when civilians fail," security and political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said.

"This is the game that ultimately undermines civilians in Pakistan."

The sheer magnitude of the disaster in an area roughly the size of England would have tested any government, but the Islamabad's response -- particularly Zardari's European trip when the floods unfolded -- contrasted with prompt army help.

"The government has thrown us here like dogs. No one cares about us," says laborer Kifayat Khan, standing at a relief center in the northwestern town of Nowshera as dirty-faced children played in deep mud.

"Government leaders and politicians come here just for media publicity, just for photographs. They have not given us any help," he complained.

As Khan spoke, a man in a gathered crowd shouted "Army Zindabad (long live). They saved my brother from drowning. They saved us from the jaws of death.

Almost everyone at the relief center set up at the sprawling Government College of Technology in flood-battered Nowshera praised the army.

"The soldiers have set up these tents for us and gave us food but they have gone now," said Gul Bibi, a 40-year-old woman, holding her shirtless son in her lap. "Now we are not getting much help."

Many Pakistanis are ambivalent about the army. While they welcomed the return of democracy in 2008 after military President Pervez Musharraf's fall, perceived graft and political bickering in Zardari's government have made many nostalgic.

While nostalgia does not meant the army will return to power in a coup, it underscores the fragile line that Zardari must negotiate with the most powerful institution in Pakistan.

"It's only the army which is working day and night. It is because of the army that we are here," said Mohammad Munshi Shah, who fled to Muzaffarabad in Punjab province along with 23 family members after floods swept away his village.

Despite its enhanced image, the army is unlikely to rise against the unpopular Zardari at a time when it is fighting a growing insurgency by militants linked to al Qaeda and Taliban.

"The Army has improved its image domestically and it wants to improve its image internationally by fighting militants," Rizvi said.

(Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer in Muzaffargarh; Editing by Alistair Scrutton)

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