US embassy plans spur rumors, concern in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD — America's plans for a major expansion of its diplomatic presence in Pakistan, including the possible takeover of a bombed luxury hotel near the Taliban heartland, have heightened tensions and bred rumors in a population rife with anti-U.S. sentiment.

Among the tales being floated: that 1,000 U.S. Marines will land in the capital, that Americans will set up a Guantanamo-style prison and that the infamous security contractor once called Blackwater will come in and wreak havoc.

The frenzy, much of it whipped up by the media and Islamist political parties, shows the difficulties for the U.S. as it seeks to increase its engagement in a country where a flourishing militant movement is threatening the war effort in neighboring Afghanistan.

The U.S. says it needs to expand mainly to disburse billions of dollars more in aid to Pakistan, an impoverished nation of 175 million people.

Pakistanis tend to view U.S. motives with suspicion, pointing to a history of American support for the country's past military rulers and involvement in its internal affairs, which they say has stunted the economy and democratic aspirations.

Others believe the U.S. is out to end Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, a source of domestic pride.

"Even an illiterate person knows that the Americans are against our nuclear program, and they will not miss any opportunity to destroy" the nuclear facilities, said Humayoun Qaiser, 23, a student at an Islamic university in Islamabad.

In recent weeks, several newspapers have published unconfirmed reports that 1,000 U.S. Marines will be posted at the U.S Embassy in Islamabad — which would be a significant jump from the nine there now. U.S. officials say at most the number may reach 20. Marine security guards are routine at U.S. missions abroad.

The head of the Islamist political party Jamaat-e-Islami, which has demonstrated against the expansion, recently claimed that the U.S. also plans to build a Guantanamo-like prison, according to a newspaper report. The U.S. denies the claim.

Rumors aside, the embassy does plan to reconstruct the buildings on its 38-acre (15-hectare) compound and acquire an additional 18 acres (7 hectares), much of which will be used for apartments, embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire said.

About 1,450 employees work for the embassy: 1,000 Pakistanis, 250 Americans posted to the site and another 200 Americans on short-term assignments. The plan is to add around 400 people, including about 200 more posted U.S. staffers, Snelsire said.

The major reason for the growth is a proposal in Congress to triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, he said.