QUETTA, Pakistan — A government-organized Pakistan Solidarity Day rally here Thursday meant to show a groundswell of backing for President Pervez Musharraf and his pro-U.S. policies became a display of anything but unity.
It was a sobering debacle suggesting that public support for Musharraf's decision to help the United States in its war against terrorism, at least in this city less than 50 miles from the Afghan border, is thin, unenthusiastic and controversial.
Similar rallies were staged in other Pakistani cities--including Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, the capital--where attendance reportedly was also lower than expected.
At the rally in Quetta, about 1,500 people--mainly schoolchildren with their teachers, youth groups and off-duty civil servants--gathered under a searing midday sun in Liaquat Park to hear speeches and some surprising expressions of dissent.
With the crowd in place, pro-government speakers trooped into the park appearing tense and grim-faced but still managing to generate a smattering of applause. They looked out on a swath of Pakistani flags and carefully printed banners that carried slogans such as "One Nation, One Voice, One Thought" and "Islam Is Against Terrorism."
After about four speakers issued statements that the nation stood in solidarity with Musharraf, a local mullah came to the microphone and stunned organizers by denouncing both the U.S. and the Pakistani government's decision to support the Bush administration.
"America's role has never been good for our country; it supports terrorism against Muslims," the religious leader, Kari Abdul Rehmen, said as organizers frantically whispered to him that his allotted time was up.
Occasionally, muffled calls of "Jihad!" could be heard coming from young people, apparently too frightened to shout louder for fear of being disciplined. Although the word jihad has many meanings, within the context of Thursday's rally it was clearly an expression of solidarity with the Taliban government.
The performance served as a cautionary tale that organizing rallies in support of military governments can be a tricky business.
Several entrances to the park were closed once the rally began. When security officials opened a couple of them while the speeches were still in progress, some children ran out. An organizer yelled: "Why are you letting them go? It's not over yet!"
By the time the main speaker, Baluchistan Gov. Amirul Mulk Mengal, began his talk, many at the rally had managed to slip away.
In addition to the absence of any zeal, one possible explanation might have been that, despite the heat and lack of shade, organizers in most cases failed to provide the children with water. The rally was held under extremely tight police security, and participants were forced to walk through metal detectors to get into the park.
One participant, civil servant Abdullah Braich, said he had come to express solidarity with the government. He said that he was a driver at the Baluchistan provincial government's livestock department and that 200 others from his agency were attending.
Thursday's rally came after a series of anti-government protests a week ago that also fell short of the predictions of organizers, who were unsuccessful in their goal of shutting down the country with a general strike.
Together, the weak showing in the streets would appear to confirm analysts' assessment that the vast majority of Pakistanis are torn and confused in the wake of the U.S. attacks--unenthusiastic either about supporting a neighboring government harboring a terrorism suspect or assisting the Americans in any attack on the Afghan regime.
In Islamabad, Foreign Minister Abdus Sattar led a march through the government quarter and addressed a crowd of about 3,000 people outside the parliament building.
"Our strategy is not against the people of Afghanistan," he said. "We are with the Afghan people."
In the evening, local residents and traders in Islamabad conducted another rally.
Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Islamabad contributed to this report.