ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – It was one of the most enduring images of 2002 — a photograph of Daniel Pearl, a gun pointed at his head, just days after he was kidnapped off the streets of Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi.
The January abduction and beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter was the first blow in a year of unprecedented violence against foreigners and Pakistani Christians, and many fear a further backlash if the United States goes ahead with an attack on Iraq.
In a first glimpse on Friday, religious hard-liners staged loud but peaceful demonstrations, chanting "Down with America," and "Long Live Saddam Hussein." Crowds ranged in number from 7,000 in Peshawar, a stronghold of pro-Afghan sentiment, to 400 in Islamabad, the capital.
Retired Gen. Talat Masood, a security analyst, says he expects reaction to an attack on Iraq to be much worse than during the 1991 Gulf War.
"Polarization is much greater and anti-Americanism is much more crystallized," he said. "The general impression here is that this is part of an attempt to dominate the Muslim world. Iraq may be first, but Iran and then Pakistan may be next."
Masood said an Iraq war could lead to more violence against foreigners here. "One can't rule that out," he said.
Others note that the Gulf War protests were not particularly broad-based, and demonstrations called in 2001 against the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan did not draw large crowds.
Still, while Pakistan has always been rife with sectarian violence and foreigners have been targeted before, the level of attacks in 2002 was unprecedented, and analysts say radicals could become even more emboldened if Iraq is attacked.
"I think that should be a cause of concern for the government," said Gen. Rashid Quereshi, a spokesman for President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
Pakistan's defining moment — and the main reason for its heightened level of violence — came after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Musharraf chose to ditch the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and support the United States.
The military leader ordered his intelligence agencies to help track down Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives, and banned homegrown Islamic radical groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. Washington gave Pakistan billions of dollars in aid and debt forgiveness, and renewed military contacts with the country.
But Musharraf's decisions left radicals feeling betrayed.
On Jan. 23, Pearl was abducted while working on story about Islamic extremists in Karachi. A month later, U.S. diplomats received a grisly videotape of his murder. Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born militant, has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani court for his role in the crime.
On March 17, assailants threw grenades into a Protestant church within walking distance of the U.S. Embassy, killing five people, including an embassy employee and her 17-year-old daughter.
In Karachi, a suicide bombing killed 11 French engineers and three others in May, and a car bomb outside the U.S. Consulate killed 12 Pakistanis in June. Authorities also said they foiled a plot to assassinate Musharraf in Karachi.
In July, assailants threw a grenade at foreigners touring an archaeological site, injuring 12 people. In August, armed men stormed into a Christian school filled with foreign children east of Islamabad and killed six people, all Pakistani. Four days later, grenades hurled at a church by a Presbyterian hospital left four dead.
And in September, gunmen entered the offices of a Christian welfare organization in Karachi, tied up staff and shot eight of them in the head.
On Dec. 5, an explosion rocked Macedonia's consulate in Karachi. Investigators found three bodies inside — two men and a woman — each with their hands and feet bound and their throats slit. Messages scrawled on a wall referred to Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda group and warned against "infidels." Investigators say it may have been revenge for the shooting deaths of seven Pakistanis in a van that ran a roadblock in Macedonia the previous March.
Finally, assailants covered in burqas, a traditional women's garb, tossed a grenade during Christmas services at a village church in central Pakistan, killing three people and wounding 11.
Besides the violence, another cause for concern is the strong showing of a hard-line religious bloc in the Oct. 10 elections. Religious leaders now in parliament and in charge of two key provinces near the border with Afghanistan have made inflammatory anti-U.S. comments almost daily.
Maulana Azam Tariq, whose pro-Taliban group has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, was elected to parliament from jail, and a court recently ordered him released. His Sipah-e-Sahaba group is suspected in more than 400 murders.
Religious tensions were felt at the opening of parliament when newly sworn-in lawmakers held an impromptu prayer session on Nov. 19 for Aimal Kasi, a Pakistani executed five days earlier in Virginia for the 1993 murder of two CIA workers.
Although the religious bloc failed to win a place in the new governing coalition, the hard-liners now have a voice in the political mainstream, and that may mean violence will decline.
Among the radicals "There is a sense that `now that we are involved politically, we don't need to show our militancy,"' said Masood.
Still, such optimism would melt away quickly after a new attack on foreigners here. Some embassies and Western aid organizations already are drawing up plans to get their nationals out if a U.S.-led war is launched against Iraq.