Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ordered security forces to storm a radical mosque in the normally placid capital of Islamabad after an embarrassing six-month standoff with a group of extremists who had been waging a vigilante campaign to impose their own version of Islamic law.
Many Pakistanis felt that some sort of action was long overdue, but when it came, the assault was violent. In room-by-room fighting to clear the sprawling Red Mosque complex, some 50 militants and eight soldiers were killed. After 12 hours of fighting, Pakistani forces were still trying to clear some of the remaining areas where diehards remained holed up.
Pakistan’s government had been eager to avoid a bloody crackdown, fearing that it could trigger a popular backlash. Already, as U.S. News reports in this week’s issue, Musharraf is more vulnerable politically than at any point since he seized power in a military coup.
The raid followed a weeklong siege on the mosque prompted by clashes between security forces and the mosque’s followers. At least 80 people were killed in those battles, even before today’s attack.
The mosque and its followers had been a growing problem. A group of female and male militants had occupied several government buildings while others kidnapped police officers and alleged prostitutes. Some followers even launched their own Islamic law court.
Particularly in recent weeks, the confrontation was eroding the country’s confidence in Musharraf’s regime, which is increasingly under pressure from both sides of the country’s political spectrum. Islamist parties were angry about the government’s siege on the mosque, while moderate, secular parties bemoaned Musharraf’s failure to move strongly against the mosque’s followers.
Hours after the predawn raid on the mosque began, small protests were already springing up around the country. And it could get worse. Pakistani TV stations are reporting that one of the mosque’s leaders, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was killed in the daylong assault. Many observers feared that his death could make him a martyr and be used to inspire further unrest. --Kevin Whitelaw