Image: U.S. aid helicopter lands in Kashmir
Paula Bronstein  /  Getty Images
A Pakistani boy covers his face as a U.S. aid helicopter lands at a Mercy corps aid distribution center, Saturday, in the remote Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.
updated 10/29/2005 5:43:27 PM ET 2005-10-29T21:43:27

The United States has sent military helicopters, an Army field hospital and a construction battalion to earthquake-stricken Pakistan — a gesture that has irked Islamic hard-liners but may help improve Washington’s battered image in the Muslim world after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“When they do something against Muslims, we condemn them. Now as they are helping us, we should appreciate them,” said Yar Mohammed, 48, a farmer in Muzaffarabad, the devastated capital of Pakistan’s portion of the divided Himalayan region of Kashmir.

“We are facing hard times, and they are helping us.”

That help started a day after the 7.6-magnitude quake struck Oct. 8, killing an estimated 80,000 people and leaving more than 3 million homeless. The U.S. military immediately started diverting some two dozen heavy-lifting choppers from its operations in neighboring Afghanistan.

Key ally
Pakistan is a key Washington ally in the war on terrorism, and President Gen. Pervez Musharraf supported the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But his government has refused to let U.S. soldiers operate on Pakistani soil — despite suspicions that Osama bin Laden could be hiding on its side of the Afghan border — because of domestic opposition to such a deployment.

So even allowing for the humanitarian crisis, some Islamic hard-liners have bristled at the presence of U.S. troops.

“There is no need for American forces here. I think our intelligence agencies should monitor the activities of Americans in sensitive areas like Kashmir,” said Ameer ul-Azeem, spokesman for the Islamic opposition coalition, Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal, which governs a province hit severely by the quake.

Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir, split into heavily militarized control zones with restricted access. The rugged mountainous area is also a regarded as a hotbed for Islamic militants, who have fought for 16 years against Indian security forces across the border.

‘Grateful for aid’
Analysts say most Pakistanis welcome America’s help — particularly its helicopters, invaluable for reaching isolated mountain communities facing the onset of the harsh Himalayan winter.

“Most Pakistanis are grateful for aid coming from any quarter,” said Khalid Mahmood, a research analyst at the Institute of Regional Studies in the capital Islamabad. “This (U.S. assistance) will have a positive effect and will help lessen hostility in the Islamic world to the Americans.”

However, analysts add that deeply rooted suspicion remains among the wider population of 150 million about American foreign policy, and the impact the U.S. aid effort has on hearts and minds of Muslims here will probably be incremental.

The United States is not the only nation providing earthquake relief. More than 60 nations have pledged funds, and several have contributed more than the $50 million in aid offered by Washington.

Thousands in danger
Still, with the United Nations warning that thousands more people could die during the winter unless it gets more funds to sustain its emergency relief effort, the United States is gradually building up its response.

It has so far sent 29 military helicopters — more are on the way — and on Monday an Army field hospital, usually based in southern Germany, arrived in Muzaffarabad. A construction battalion is also in town to help clear the rubble of collapsed buildings.

By Saturday afternoon, the 212th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, with its 51 doctors and nurses, had treated more than 200 patients, often operating on broken limbs and performing amputations on quake victims, as well as handling strokes, breathing problems and tetanus.

Ulfat Shah walked four days with his sick wife, Shamim, from the quake-destroyed town of Wadi Neelum. Shamim underwent an operation after suffering a miscarriage, and was hopeful of a full recovery.

They echoed the sentiments of other patients treated at the facility, where the American and Pakistani flags fly side by side.

“We are very happy that the Americans are here to help us,” Shah said.

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