Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

PAKISTAN: Troops Storm Red Mosque, Musharraf Tightens Grip

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Jul 10 2007 (IPS) - Pakistan&#39s security forces stormed the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) Tuesday in Islamabad to flush out armed militants barricaded within the complex, a move that will likely help President Gen. Pervez Musharraf deflect international criticism that he has not been doing enough to contain the Taliban on this side of the Afghan border.

But on the national front, things are a bit more complicated.

On Saturday Musharraf warned that the army would be ruthless. "We have been patient. They (militants) should come out and surrender, and if they don&#39t, I am saying this here and now: they will be killed."

Deputy chief cleric of the Lal Masjid, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was among the dead as commandos stormed the complex, according to state-run Pakistan Television (PTV), quoting interior ministry sources. The chief cleric, Ghazi&#39s brother Abdul Aziz, had already been apprehended from the compound trying to escape dressed in a burqa. At least 50 others died in the shooting, according to military reports, while about the same number of women and children who had been held hostage were rescued.

The last Ghazi was heard from was a phone call to the Geo TV station in which he accused the authorities of "naked aggression" and said that his martyrdom was certain.

Musharraf had prepared the background for the raid by getting Ejazul Haq, minister for religious affairs, to inform the media that the government had information that several internationally wanted terrorists were holed up inside the Lal Masjid complex, which includes seminaries for male and female Islamic scholars.

"Nine suspected terrorists, said to be far more dangerous and harmful than al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives, were hiding inside the mosque compound," Haq said at a Sunday press conference, though he refused to reveal their identities.

According to Haq the "high value terrorists" were in control of the mosque and not the chief cleric, who, he claimed, was being held hostage along with women and children. But Ghazi, whose support of the Islamic extremist Taliban was well known, had appeared several times on television to say that he preferred &#39martyrdom&#39 to giving up.

Ghazi had said that as many as 1,800 followers were in the mosque and that some 300, including women, had been killed during raids carried out by the army on Sunday in which senior commando officer Lt. Col. Haroon-ul-Islam died. Those numbers are yet to be verified.

Trouble began brewing at the Lal Masjid early this year when its affiliated seminary for women, Jamia Hafsa, occupied a children&#39s library demanding reconstruction of six mosques that had been demolished because they stood on encroached land. They further demanded strict enforcement of the Shariah (Islamic law) followed by kidnapping an alleged brothel owner in a bid to chastise her.

By early April the mosque had set up an Islamic Shariah court and Maulana Abdul Aziz, announced that any attempt to close it down would be met with revenge by thousands of suicide attacks.

"Moral squads" of girls and boys from the seminary were then allowed to rampage through the streets to "prevent vices and promote virtue", following the example of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Things came to a head when nine Chinese citizens, six of them women working in a massage parlour, were abducted last month. They were released a day later after diplomatic intervention.

As the Lal Masjid standoff began to take new twists and turns, with each passing day, many critics viewed it as a stage-managed affair.

"There is a pervasive feeling in Islamabad that the chief cleric and his brother played into the hands of intelligence agencies. The tragedy is whoever planned it failed to see that so many lives would be lost, and the people living in the G-6 area in Islamabad would become prisoners in their own homes," an Islamabad-based journalist told IPS, requesting anonymity.

The timing itself of the operation also raises serious doubts about the real motives of Pakistan&#39s military government.

According to Ishtiaq Ali Mehkri, news editor at Geo TV, the Lal Masjid standoff was a "masterpiece of intelligence agencies" and an "eyewash" to deflect attention from issues of national importance, especially the Supreme Court hearing of the petition of Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, who Musharraf summarily suspended as chief justice.

Mekhri&#39s views were endorsed by Hamid Mir, senior political analyst at the same TV channel. "Musharraf wanted to diffuse the Multi-Parties Conference in London (a meeting of dozens of Pakistani politicians Jul. 7-8). Before that he was using Lal Mosque to distract the judicial crisis."

According to Mir, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, head of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, who was sent to negotiate with the mosque administration, and who was about to resolve the issue in April, was "asked by someone very important to delay it".

However, Mehkri believes there could be a longer-term scheme on the part of the Musharraf government in all this. "This could be a motive to seek U.S. blessings for President Musharraf to remain in uniform."

In a statement the chairman of the Communist Party of Pakistan, engineer Jameel Ahmad Malik, said: "The religious fundamentalist forces in Pakistan are the brainchild of the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), the military intelligences and American imperialism."

The reference was to Pakistan-based Mujahideen or Islamist militants who successfully fought the Soviet army in Afghanistan through the 1980s with support from Washington.

After the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan, Pakistan is also known to have diverted the Mujahideen to Kashmir to help with its protracted dispute with India over possession of the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir.

Opposition parties in Pakistan have been accusing Musharraf of secretly encouraging Islamist radicalism to counter to growing demands by secular political groups for restoration of the democratic process and the calling of elections.

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