Siege of Red Mosque highlights Pakistan's malaise

Posted in Broader Middle East | 09-Jul-07 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: International Herald Tribune

Residents walk on a street near Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque, during a break in curfew in Islamabad, Saturday.

ISLAMABAD: With the rattle of gunfire and boom of explosions, the standoff at the Lal Masjid in the center of the Pakistani capital, dramatic though it may be, is but one part of a far larger challenge facing the president, General Pervez Musharraf.

Musharraf's immediate problem is how to end the siege with minimal loss of life and how to contain any backlash afterward, particularly in the event of a bloody denouement.

The government has done its best to avoid such an outcome and appears to be winning the high ground. The militants, it now seems clear, precipitated the fighting by firing first and killing a Pakistani Army ranger. The mullahs and their students have earned little public sympathy in their own neighborhood or around the country with their campaign to impose Shariah law, raiding shops and smashing CDs and music tapes.

The arrest of the leader of the mosque, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who tried to escape in a burka while leaving behind hundreds of his students, many of them female, has brought ridicule in the news media, which have largely supported the government. Neither the public nor the religious parties have protested the actions of the government, which has won praise for its relative restraint.

But the standoff is far from over, and several bombings in the North-West Frontier Province last week, including a suicide bombing, and gunfire as the president's plane took off Friday, are a reminder that the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, is only the most visible bulwark of the extremist Islamist militancy that has spread across Pakistan, lodging in cities and districts - and that appears to be growing.

Questions are already being raised over why the government waited so long to move against the clerics of the Lal Masjid.

Government officials are privately saying they hope that the government will next go after another radical cleric, Fazlullah, the acting leader of the extremist group Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, who has been vocal in his support for the Taliban and suicide bombing as well as the clerics in the mosque.

Certain lessons must be drawn from the Lal Masjid episode, Dawn, another national daily, wrote Friday in an editorial. "Characters like the two Lal Masjid brothers are to be found all over the country," it wrote. "They have money and arms and brainwashed followers willing to do their bidding."

While their followers may be innocent and sincere in their belief, their leaders often operate with impunity, it said. "It is, thus, the brains behind them that the government should go after."

"The Lal Masjid drama is a symptom of a deeper malaise," it said.

"The nation expects the government to move against terrorism until it no longer becomes a force."

A successful end to the Lal Masjid showdown will provide a much-needed lift to the Pakistani government and to Musharraf himself, Teresita Schaffer, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia and the director of the South Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in a speech last week.

Failure to act before was a reflection of the severe erosion of the government's authority, she said.

"But Musharraf and his government are not out of the woods," she said, listing major problems confronting the general, who faces elections this year, and the country. The militancy issue alone is daunting.

"Fighting between government forces and groups friendly to the Taliban in the provinces bordering Afghanistan is still going on, with at least two suicide bombings in the last 24 hours," she noted.

"Sympathizers of the Red Mosque as well as Afghan-oriented parts of the militant movement may be looking for more opportunities to make their presence felt."