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Behind Pakistan's bloody crackdown

July 20, 2007 | Page 7

LEE SUSTAR and NAGESH RAO report on the Musharraf government's assault on the Red Mosque.

OPERATION SILENCE, the Pakistani military's brutal siege of the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in the capital city of Islamabad, ended in a bloodbath on July 10 and 11 with the deaths of dozens--perhaps hundreds--of people who the government of President Pervez Musharraf calls "terrorists."

The slaughter immediately triggered new clashes between the government and Islamist groups along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that puts new pressure on Musharraf, who was already facing a mass pro-democracy movement against his dismissal of the top judge on the Pakistan Supreme Court.

With an election looming later this year, Musharraf is scrambling to salvage a political base while appeasing his masters in the U.S.--who are demanding that the Pakistani president take a hard line against Islamist militants.

The attack on the Red Mosque marks the opening of this crackdown. While a group of militants in the mosque were clearly armed--a top commander of an elite Pakistani military unit was killed, along with 10 soldiers--there's no doubt that dozens who died in the government assault were innocent young people attending a religious school, or madrassa, on the mosque's grounds.

As Farooq Tariq of the Labor Party of Pakistan--and a harsh critic of Islamist politics--reported, those who came out of the mosque were treated by the media as "terrorists" who had "surrendered," as if this were a "military-to-military" operation.

The public humiliation of the students continued as they were paraded through the streets and on national television, shirtless, with their hands raised. Abdul Aziz, one of the clerics who led the mosque, was interviewed on television after his arrest while still wearing the women's clothing, a burqa, that he had donned as a disguise.

The pretext for the assault was the campaign by the madrassa's students to impose Islamic, or sharia, law in Islamabad, an effort that included the brief kidnapping of Chinese women accused of prostitution and the intimidation of vendors who sold goods the students viewed as "immoral."

Yet all this took place for months before Musharraf took action. And the Red Mosque has enjoyed the patronage of powerful people--including A.Q. Khan, the architect of Pakistan's nuclear weapons program. When the leader of the mosque in the 1980s, Maulana Abdullah, was assassinated--by the Pakistani intelligence service, many speculate--top generals and politicians attended his funeral.

Abdullah's sons, Abdul Aziz and Abdur Rashid Ghazi took over leadership of the mosque. Ghazi was known for his sympathy for the Taliban, and in 2004 issued an edict that any Pakistani soldier killed fighting pro-Taliban Pakistani groups in the South Waziristan should be denied Muslim funeral rites.

Ghazi also amassed weaponry--which would have impossible without the tolerance, if not outright support, of the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

Farooq Tariq notes that "when the two clerics were arrested in 2004, they were released when the Minister for Religious Affairs, one Ijaz ul Haq, son of the late military dictator General Zia ul Haq, intervened on their behalf. It was under General Zia, after all, that the madrassa system was turned into a recruiting tool for the Afghan mujahideen (under U.S. supervision, of course)," referring to the CIA-Pakistani effort to arm the Afghan Islamist militants against the USSR's occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

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SINCE BACKING the U.S. in the "war on terror" following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Musharraf has sought to balance his longstanding ties to Islamist parties sympathetic to the Taliban with demands from Washington for an all-out crackdown. And since the U.S. has given Pakistan $10 billion in aid since 2002--half of which was taken by the military--Musharraf has to dance to Washington's tune.

The military onslaught on the Red Mosque--explicitly endorsed by the U.S. State Department--signals another shift in the U.S. direction. Musharraf could have negotiated a peaceful solution, evidenced by Ghazi's decision to allow more than 1,000 students to leave the compound. But according to one report, Musharraf personally rejected a solution reached by mediators and issued an ultimatum to "surrender or die."

The assault on the mosque immediately led to the collapse of a peace agreement between the government and Islamist parties in Pakistan's tribal areas and the Northwest Frontier Province, where the government had last year struck a deal with Islamist leaders to withdraw Pakistani army troops in exchange for cooperation in stopping the Taliban and al-Qaeda from establishing bases in the region, which borders Afghanistan.

On July 15, at least 49 people, 28 of them police, were killed in a series of suicide bombings in the region, and more clashes are expected as the army returns in force, as Musharraf bows to pressure from the U.S. to squeeze pro-Taliban elements. In June, CIA drone aircraft bombed a madrassa in the province of North Waziristan, killing 20.

The fighting is expected to heat up quickly. "Unlike the [Red Mosque's] small complex, this new battlefield will be a huge valley where militants will be able to trap soldiers at sites of their choice, and the army will be free to bomb their hideouts in the high mountains," wrote Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad for the Asia Times Web site.

In another article, he predicted, "It is only a matter of time before the U.S.-led 'war on terror' formally crosses the Pakistani border" from Afghanistan.

Parallel to the fighting comes political maneuvering ahead of Pakistan's elections.

A recent conference of politicians in London was aimed at consolidating an alliance among opposition parties. Two former prime ministers are negotiating with Musharraf for a return to compete in the coming vote: Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), in exile after facing corruption charges, and Nawaz Sharif of the main Pakistan Muslim League faction, who was overthrown by Musharraf in a bloodless 1999 coup.

Tellingly, Bhutto endorsed the attack on the Red Mosque, fueling speculation that the PPP may forge a deal with Musharraf.

This uncertainty creates big problems for Washington, as the occupation of Afghanistan faces increased resistance and China and Russia seek to use their loose alliance in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to push back against the U.S. in Central and South Asia.

"Without doubt, from the U.S. perspective, Pakistan's strategic importance becomes compelling," wrote former Indian diplomat M. K. Bhadrakumar. "Washington desperately needs a power structure in Islamabad that it can manipulate, but which will have the staying power to ensure continuity in policies. The challenge is arguably formidable."

Washington's plans, however, will increasingly run into resistance, and not only from Islamist militants. The democracy movement that took to the streets of Pakistan earlier this year points to the possibility of challenging military rule and forging an alternative to corrupt and conservative parties that dominate the country.

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