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Profile : New Envoy Aims to End Pakistan's 'Rogue' Image : Maleeha Lodhi's credentials include an eye for power, a blue-blood pedigree, a career in journalism and a thousand-watt smile.

April 05, 1994|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In some Western circles, there's a hard-edged view of Pakistan as a covert nuclear power, a nation where terrorists find harbor.

And this is the same country that has dispatched to Washington an ambassador who wears high-heeled shoes with gold toes. Somehow it doesn't compute, the thousand-watt smile, the manicured nails, the British diplomas and blue-blood pedigree that, had it not been for Mogul interlopers a few centuries back, would have made her, the ambassador says wistfully, a princess.

Meet Maleeha Lodhi, 40, who is unlike any envoy her country has sent off to the United States before.

It is hard to imagine a more beguiling bearer of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's tidings than this editor whose upbringing included a stint in a convent school run by Irish nuns.

The message for President Clinton and Washington, in brief, is this: Help Bhutto and her country, because the failure of a moderate Islamic government whose leaders were chosen in free elections can only boost the cause of radicalism.

"If we succeed, then you have a model of democracy in the Muslim world, where, let's face it, democracy hasn't flourished," said Lodhi, ensconced on a turquoise sofa in the lavish Islamabad house she shares with one of her brothers, during a brief return home.

"We're struggling out here, but there is not enough knowledge," Lodhi complained. "We're depicted sometimes as a rogue state, and that is not fair."

Last October, it was at the dinner table of her home, which is decorated with plush Oriental carpets and British-era prints, that Lodhi, who is the same age as Bhutto, was offered the Washington job by the prime minister-elect.

"I was dumbfounded," recalled the usually eloquent Lodhi. "I couldn't utter a word."

Lodhi said she asked for some time to think over the offer, but two days later Bhutto called her back and said: This is it, take it or leave it. Lodhi said yes, temporarily shelving plans to write a book about the last five stormy years of Pakistani history, in which she was both player and onlooker.

Operator and wheeler-dealer are labels Pakistani observers frequently affix to this woman, sometimes in envy.

Her father, a former navy officer who rose to head the Attock Oil Co., may have taught her how to network. Amer, the older of her two brothers, was a globe-trotting liaison for the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International, whose collapse caused losses to depositors in excess of $10 billion.

Now trying to cut deals with Pakistan's government on behalf of defense firms such as the French maker of the Mirage warplane, the New York-based brother has become a friend and business partner of Benazir Bhutto's husband. He also turned informant for the Manhattan district attorney's office in its BCCI probe.

Ambassador Lodhi's tenures editing two of Pakistan's most prestigious English-language dailies have entailed much more than newspapering. She is said to have brokered Bhutto's access to the late chief of army staff, Asif Nawaz, which helped pave the way for Bhutto's return to power last year. Journalists say she is also friendly with her country's spymasters, including Gen. Javed Ashraf, the inter-services intelligence chief.

"Maleeha has always had a very sharp eye for power," one columnist said. "She knows instinctively where power is likely to gravitate."

So, not surprisingly, her fellow journalists say, when Bhutto fell from power in 1990 and archrival Nawaz Sharif succeeded her, Lodhi became close to Sharif's brother, Shabaz.

To show where her true loyalties lay during last autumn's electoral campaign that returned Bhutto to office, Lodhi passed along "little bits" of advice to the prime minister-to-be on relations with India, the United States and China. That may have given Bhutto the idea to name her to the most important post in Pakistani diplomacy, Lodhi now believes.

Cocktail party chatter and the circumstantial evidence of their identical ages have fostered rumors that Lodhi and Bhutto were girlhood chums. Not so, Lodhi said. They met in London in 1984 when Bhutto was in self-imposed exile during the regime of President Zia ul-Haq, the general who had ordered the Benazir's father, former President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, hanged in 1979. Lodhi was working as a lecturer at her alma mater, the London School of Economics.

It was during those difficult Zia years that the aspiring professor got her first taste of journalism. She wrote a 1,000-word article critical of Pakistan's military dictator that was printed in The Muslim, the country's only liberal newspaper at the time.

"This made me aware of the sort of power journalism had. Maybe not power, but that you could have an impact," she recalled. She was hooked.

Lodhi returned to Pakistan in 1986 after martial law had been lifted. Her phones were tapped and she was followed anyway. She joined The Muslim full-time to look after the op-ed pages.

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