WASHINGTON, June 20: In a resounding setback for American policy, majority of Pakistanis strongly back negotiations with Al Qaeda and the Taliban over military action, says an opinion poll released on Friday.

The survey by two Washington-based think-tanks — New America Foundation and Terror Free Tomorrow — also finds a surge in public support for former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his party.

The surveyors note that most Pakistanis cannot afford flour and blame their government for the food crisis and that public support for Al Qaeda is also gaining ground since earlier this year.

The survey shows that Nawaz Sharif is now the most popular political leader in Pakistan. Mr Sharif’s party, the PML-N, will emerge as the clear winner in any national contest, far eclipsing the current largest party in parliament, the PPP.

These are among the many findings of a new and extensive nationwide public opinion survey from May 25 to June 1, 2008, across Pakistan, covering both urban and rural areas and all provinces.

The survey, with face-to-face interviews of 1,306 Pakistanis age 18 or older and a margin of error of three per cent, is the third nationwide poll over the past nine months conducted by the two groups.

In another dramatic reversal of Pakistani public opinion, Mr Sharif has emerged, by far, as the most popular political leader in Pakistan today. In advance of the June 26 by-election, a striking 86 per cent of Pakistanis have a favourable opinion of Mr Sharif, whose views have made some American policy-makers indicate concern.

Mr Sharif has also seen a steady rise in his popularity, from 57 per cent favourable in the August 2007 poll, to 74 per cent in January 2008 and 86 per cent today. As significantly, those with a very favourable opinion have almost doubled since January 2008 to 43 per cent now -- a level no other political figure in Pakistan comes even close to.

By comparison, Asif Zardari, co-chairman of the PPP, just has a 13 per cent very favourable rating.

If elections were held today, Mr Sharif’s PML-N would emerge as the clear winner, garnering 42 per cent of the vote to the PPP’s 32 per cent. The PML-N has witnessed a significant surge in popularity. From only 15 per cent saying they would vote for them in the August 2007 poll, to 25 per cent in the pre-election January poll (which mirrored the actual election results), the PML-N today stands at 42 per cent, the most popular party in Pakistan.

The reasons for the rise of Mr Sharif and the declining fortunes of others inside Pakistan can be found in widespread Pakistani discontent with the status quo.

The high cost of food and fuel is hitting ordinary Pakistanis hard. An overwhelming 86 per cent of Pakistanis have faced increasing difficulty in obtaining flour for their daily food consumption -- primarily because of high prices.

And Pakistanis consider their own government most responsible.

Similarly, 81 per cent have been affected by the high price of fuel, with again, in their view, the Pakistani government most responsible, only for fuel closely followed by American and western oil companies.

Overall, just 20 per cent of Pakistanis think their country is heading in the right direction. With the highest priority Pakistanis have for their government (even slightly higher than the economy) an independent judiciary, most Pakistanis now blame the PPP and President Musharraf for failing to restore the judges sacked by Mr Musharraf last year. Almost three-quarters of Pakistanis want Mr Musharraf to resign and if he doesn’t, to be removed by parliament as president.

Dissatisfaction with the current civilian government does not mean, however, that the public wants the Pakistani military to return to political affairs.

In the survey last August, 45 per cent approved of the military playing a role in the political and economic affairs of the country. That number has now dropped to 28 per cent, while those who disapprove have steadily risen from 46 per cent last August to 64 per cent now, with those strongly disapproving doubling to over half.

As many as 44 per cent of Pakistanis think the United States poses the greatest threat to their personal safety. India is next at 14 per cent. By contrast, a mere six per cent feel Al Qaeda is a threat, with four per cent the Afghan Taliban and eight per cent the Pakistani Taliban.

Half of all Pakistanis want their government to negotiate and not fight Al Qaeda, with less than a third saying military action by the Pakistani government against Al Qaeda is called for.

For Pakistani Taliban, 58 per cent favour negotiations to 19 per cent for military action.

In stark opposition to American policy, the Pakistani people themselves would go even further than their own government and not only negotiate with Pakistani Taliban fighters, but with both Arab Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters as well, decisively opposing any military action.

Even before the latest American military incursion (which occurred after the poll was complete), a mere 12 per cent of Pakistanis supported any unilateral American military action against Al Qaeda fighters inside Pakistan. Strong opposition to the US military has also intensified since earlier this year.

A third of Pakistanis now voice a positive view of Al Qaeda, nearly double the percentage from earlier this year. Similarly, for Osama bin Laden, 34 per cent currently have a favourable opinion, up from 24 per cent in January but still below the 46 per cent who thought so in August 2007.

Trust for American motives has sunk to new lows: Three quarters of Pakistanis say that the real purpose of the US-led war on terror is to weaken the Muslim world and dominate Pakistan.

Significantly, when asked who was most responsible for the violence that is occurring in Pakistan today, more than half (52 per cent) blame the United States -- only eight per cent Al Qaeda fighters.

Despite the spate of suicide bombings that have shaken Pakistan at the apparent hands of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Pakistanis see the United States as posing the greatest threat to their own personal safety.