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From the Associated Press


Mosque Crisis May Boost Musharraf's Hand

Wednesday July 11, 2007 10:01 PM


Associated Press Writer

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) - President Pervez Musharraf's decision to have the army storm the Red Mosque may strengthen the U.S.-allied leader's hand among Pakistanis dismayed at how Islamic militants used the holy site as a fortress.

It also has pushed a fight over his bungled attempt to fire the country's top judge out of a harsh media spotlight and prompted a fresh show of support from Washington.

However, the general has given extremist enemies who have repeatedly tried to assassinate him a new cause to rally around, raising the prospect of surging violence as Pakistan heads toward elections and he seeks another five years in power.

Al-Qaida's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, became the latest to demand revenge against Musharraf over the battle, issuing a video Wednesday urging Pakistanis to wage holy war against their government.

``The big question mark now is what is going to be the reaction of the Islamists,'' said Shaun Gregory, head of Bradford University's Pakistan Security Research Unit in Britain.

Some 106 people, including 10 soldiers, died in the weeklong confrontation at the mosque, which turned a chunk of the capital into a war zone and ended when commandos attacked the heavily armed militants holed up in the sprawling complex before dawn Tuesday.

While one of the mosque's defiant clerics was among the dead, the army said Wednesday that dozens of women and children still inside when the 35-hour assault began escaped unharmed - a critical point for the government, which had feared a bloodbath that could anger the public.

Nevertheless, several radical clerics and militant leaders are calling for attacks on Musharraf's government and security forces, insisting the troops slaughtered innocent students and defiled the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque.

Even before the final battle there, a string of attacks after the mosque siege began July 3 hit at government targets in Pakistan's northwest, where many people are sympathetic to the hard-line Islam of the Taliban. At least 30 people died, including 17 soldiers and policemen.

The military has responded by setting up extra checkpoints in North Waziristan and sending troops to Swat, two regions where radicals - some with alleged ties to the Red Mosque - hold sway.

Mansoor Dadullah, a senior commander of Taliban fighters in neighboring Afghanistan, on Wednesday called for suicide attacks on Pakistani security forces, but said in a telephone call to The Associated Press that his men had been too busy to go to the mosque's aid.

The United States, which is counting on Musharraf to prevent al-Qaida and the Taliban from rebuilding in the frontier region and to help stabilize Afghanistan, reiterated its support for the Pakistani president Tuesday.

The general is ``a strong ally in the war against these extremists,'' President Bush said, also praising Musharraf as a promoter of democracy. ``I like him and I appreciate him,'' Bush said.

At home, the siege could blunt an opposition drive against Musharraf's plan to ask lawmakers for a new five-year term this fall without first giving up his post as army chief.

Images of troops surrounding the white-domed Red Mosque to a soundtrack of explosions and gunfire overshadowed a weekend meeting of 60 opposition parties in London designed to coordinate their campaign against Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup.

It also diverted attention from Musharraf's attempt to fire the Supreme Court chief justice, a misstep that set off a broader democracy movement and alienated some of the leader's own supporters.

Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister and opposition leader expected by many to return from exile and join Musharraf in a power-sharing deal after year-end general elections, praised him for taking a tough line on the Red Mosque.

``I'm glad there was no cease-fire with the militants in the mosque because cease-fires simply embolden the militants,'' she told Britain's Sky TV on Tuesday. ``There will be a backlash, but at some time we have to stop appeasing the militants.''

Pakistan's mainstream, liberal newspapers also backed the assault, though ordinary citizens appeared less enthusiastic.

Several people interviewed by AP sympathized with some of the clerics' professed goals, especially closing down alleged brothels in Pakistan's relatively Westernized capital.

Still, they also criticized the mosque leaders' increasingly aggressive anti-vice campaign, which included kidnapping alleged Chinese prostitutes, and their stockpiling of weapons and ammunition at the holy site and an adjoining madrassa, or religious school, for girls.

``Musharraf's government did this to please America,'' Murtaza Khan, a 55-year-old shopkeeper in Peshawar, said of the army assault at the mosque.

But then he added: ``This incident also shows that there should be checks on the madrassas. If something like this is going on in any madrassa, action can be taken in time.''

Ikram Sehgal, a Pakistani political analyst, said that sentiment could help Musharraf broaden public support for cracking down on violent Islamic radicalism. The siege ``has woken up people in Pakistan who were generally favorable to the Taliban and to the clerics,'' Sehgal said.

Gregory, the expert at Bradford University, said that while the mosque raid alone was not enough to dispel doubts about Pakistan's willingness to confront militants, it could help Musharraf secure the support he needs to stay in power.

``The Americans can say, 'Well, Musharraf has come through and confronted the Islamists.' It works in the favor of the secular political parties. And I do think that amongst that center of gravity of Pakistani people, who are broadly moderate in economic and social and religious terms, this is going to be broadly welcomed,'' he said.


Associated Press writer Stephen Graham has reported from Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2003.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007