The voice bellows not from some bearded firebrand but from Sumbal, a five-year-old girl in a bubble-gum-pink smock. After her speech, delivered with a child's pure-spun rage, Sumbal encounters TIME's correspondent, an American citizen. Trembling, she hides behind her teacher's legs and tries to bury her face in the baggy folds of his salwar kameez. This is her worst nightmare: after memorizing her diatribe against blood-thirsty Americans, one of them has come stalking up the ravines after her.
President Pervez Musharraf is holding polls on Oct. 10 to fulfill his promise to return Pakistan to the democratic path. But it is a brand of democracy that suits the General better than anyone else. He rewrote election rules to disqualify former Prime Ministers Mohammed Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, and threatened to toss them in jail if they returned from abroad, which badly undermined both Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League and Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). And once the polls are over, the elected government will work under a constitution amended by Musharraf, which gives expanded powers both to him and a new military-heavy National Security Council. Musharraf insists he is merely trying to prevent corruption and bad governance; critics say he has no intention of letting elected civilians run Pakistan. Faced with such criticism, Musharraf appears eager to divert public attention away from the election—hence, last Friday, Pakistan test-fired a nuclear-capable missile, and India performed a parallel missile test hours afterwards.
The President must have known his tinkering would take some of the oomph out of an election campaign, which in Pakistan is usually as thunderous, and joyfully welcomed, as the yearly monsoon. But Musharraf prefers it dull, and that is how it is: the Pakistan Muslim League and the PPP combined normally get more than 50% of the popular vote, but now their camps are apathetic, producing one of the dullest campaigns in memory. What Musharraf did not expect was the force that has filled the vacuum: an alliance of six hard-line religious parties that calls itself the Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal (MMA). The MMA is volubly anti- American, as Sumbal, the five-year-old anti-Yankee rabble-rouser, demonstrates. More worrisome for Musharraf: it has also become a focus for popular discontent against him for his actions since Sept. 11, especially his crackdown on insurgents going to fight jihad in Kashmir, and what is perceived to be his pro-America pandering.
In the past, Pakistani religious parties seldom grabbed more than five percent of the vote. The country's intelligentsia likes to claim this is because, once all the hollering dies down and ballots are cast, Pakistanis are moderate, secular folk. In fact, most Pakistanis are poor, unschooled people who traditionally vote as their feudal squires command—or suffer their wrath. With the two big parties in retreat, the hard-line religious coalition is leading a whole lot of voters to the booths. Polls indicate that the MMA could win 30 to 50 of the 270 National Assembly seats. (Another 70 seats are reserved for women and minorities, a Musharraf innovation.) That is nowhere near a majority. But in a splintered Parliament, it could be enough to give the clerics a few berths in a future coalition government. From there, the clerics could snipe and demand radical Islamic changes in schools and social programs.
Hatred is a powerful motivator. Until the clerics made common cause against America, the six hard-line party leaders were rivals. They stormed each other's mosques and split hairs over ideological disputes dating back to Islam's early days. Their differences were stark: some worship at the tombs of local Sufi saints; others dismiss that practice as blasphemy. Most of the parties want their women veiled from head to toe, although more liberal groups argue that it ought to be the woman's choice. The personalities of the parties' leaders have also clashed. Qazi Hussain Ahmed from the Jamaat-e-Islami is a cultured, well-traveled cleric who speaks with the measured finality of a judge passing a grim sentence. Several of his new brethren, in contrast, are unquestionably flamboyant. Maulana Fazlur Rehman wears robes of golden thread and was dubbed "Maulana Diesel" after allegations were made—though never proven—that he was involved in a fuel scam. Maulana Samiul Haq earned the nickname "Sandwich Sammy" after being photographed (presumably by Pakistani intelligence officers) in an inventive position with several bedmates. "We have our differences, some of them centuries-old," concedes Ahmed, "But we have enough in common."
The MMA's stronghold lies in the tribal band along the Afghan border. Its Baluch and Pashtun supporters are ethnically and ideologically tied to the former Taliban rulers in Afghanistan, thus their anti-Americanism. The region is where Pakistani and U.S. intelligence officers believe many al-Qaeda fighters, possibly even Osama bin Laden, may be holed up. Guns are in plentiful supply. Basha Kamal from Khana-Khel village, in the hills behind the turquoise Indus River, slaps his hip and says: "Of course I carry an automatic pistol. That doesn't mean I'm a terrorist." He adds, "But I refuse to bow to the Americans. This is our land."
The clerics have a long litany of gripes against the Americans and Musharraf, whom they dismiss as "an American agent" and "a puppet." They resent him for allowing the U.S. to use Pakistani military bases in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier province as staging posts in its Afghan campaign. It angers them that agents of the fbi wiretap Pakistani telephones and organize raids on suspected al-Qaeda hideouts. The Islamic hard-liners even fret that cameras at the Karachi airport are feeding images into CIA computers. What riles them most is that Musharraf has buckled to U.S. pressure and scaled down Pakistan's covert support of Muslim militants fighting in Indian-held Kashmir. "This is against our sovereignty," says the MMA's Ahmed.
Musharraf has plainly given the religious groups more free rein in the campaign than he has allowed the two big parties that were his main rivals. In Jhang city, in Punjab province, Maulana Azam Tariq, leader of an outlawed extremist group called Sipah-e-Sahaba, which has been linked to numerous sectarian killings, is being allowed to run as an independent—despite election laws that disqualify any candidate who has criminal charges pending, or even those who did not earn a college degree. "It makes no sense that Benazir can't run in the election," says one Islamabad-based diplomat, "and this nasty guy can." Musharraf may have underestimated the power of nastiness, the depth of the Islamic conservatives' popular support, and the intensity of their hostility towards him. That anger also extends to his American allies, especially where it counts the most: in al-Qaeda country.