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World Perspective | SOUTH ASIA

Osama Bin Laden Is Wanted Here Too

Babies and businesses are named after the suspected terrorist, who is a hero on Pakistan's frontier for his battle against the West.

July 24, 1999|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — When his son came into the world in November, Ghani Jan said he knew in an instant who his namesake would be.

"I named him Osama, for Osama bin Laden," Jan, a soft-spoken clerk in the city's electricity department, said as he cradled his smiling son. "Osama bin Laden is such a good person. Everybody likes the name."

Bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa last year, is a folk hero to the villagers of Pakistan's untamed northwest frontier. In the year since the bombings, the name Osama has emerged as one of the most popular for newborns. Bin Laden's name and face also adorn shops, schools, posters and postcards.

In the dusty streets and winding bazaars of this old border town, there is the Osama Cloth House and the Osama School. An Osama Bazaar holds more than 100 shops, and the Osama Mosque attracts more than 100 families. Outside town, many merchants have changed the names of their businesses to cash in on the Osama craze: Osama Poultry Farm. Osama Watchmaker. Osama Medicines. And the Osama Knife Center.

"It's good for business," said Irshad Ahmad of Osama Optical, an eyeglass store in the nearby town of Mardan. "He has given everything for Islam. He is fighting the holy war all over the world."

While official records are not available, health officials in Peshawar have verified that the name Osama has become extremely popular.

"A lot of people are naming their sons Osama," said Iramullah Khan, a medical officer for the Peshawar government. "It's just like during the Gulf War, when everyone was naming their sons Saddam."

The Osama boom reflects a widespread admiration for Bin Laden in this region, which borders the Afghan province where the suspected terrorist is thought to be hiding. Many people here say they admire Bin Laden because he is standing up to the United States, which they say suppresses Islam and bullies the rest of the world. Some say they were angered by the U.S. cruise missile strikes launched in August against terrorist camps in Afghanistan believed linked to the embassy blasts.

"With their television, adultery, drinking, the West is trying to destroy our culture," said Saleem Khan, a sales clerk who named his son Osama when he was born in March. "Osama is fighting against the cruelty of the West."

These days, Peshawar buzzes with talk of an imminent U.S. strike against Bin Laden--and of a Bin Laden strike against the United States. Each day, local newspapers scream warnings of an impending American assault: "U.S. Commandos Arrive in Peshawar," said War, an Urdu-language daily. "Three U.S. Fleets Reach Gwadar," the Daily Khabrain said, referring to a Pakistani port.

Fears of a U.S. strike against Afghanistan intensified earlier this month when the Clinton administration imposed economic sanctions on the Taliban government in retaliation for its reputed protection of Bin Laden. The U.S. is offering a $5-million reward for information leading to his arrest and conviction. Leaders of the Taliban, the doctrinaire Islamic group that controls most of Afghanistan, have vowed to resist U.S. pressure to turn over Bin Laden.

"If America attacks Afghanistan for the second time, then a suicide squad will attack American installations," Rehmatullah Kakazar, Afghanistan's consul general, told the Daily Khabrain.

U.S. officials worry that Bin Laden might be plotting a fresh strike against American citizens. Last week, U.S. officials issued a warning to Americans in Pakistan after the officials said they had received "credible information" that extremists based in Afghanistan were preparing to attack the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar in the near future, probably with a car or truck bomb.

For some people in Peshawar, the attention accorded Bin Laden has made him seem more powerful--and more dangerous--than he really is.

"America is the world's only superpower, and Osama is only one person," said Hidyath Ullah, deputy secretary-general of Jamaat-i-Islami, Pakistan's largest religious party. "America is maximizing the stature of Osama bin Laden."

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