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    South Asia
     Mar 30, 2007
Another stiff test for Musharraf
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - From the mountains of Pakistan's tribal areas to the capital Islamabad and up to the insurgent coastal belt of Balochistan province bordering Iran and Afghanistan, pan-Islamists are developing a united front ultimately to take on the West and its allies in the region.

The immediate target, though, is the administration of West-leaning President General Pervez Musharraf. Islamists of all hues are coming together. These include those believing in tribal traditions (the Islamic Emirates of the Waziristans and the Taliban

of Afghanistan); global jihadis (al-Qaeda), proponents of Islamic democracy (the Jamaat-i-Islami Pakistan and the newly organized United Islamic Front of Afghanistan), and madrassas (seminaries) led by the Lal Masjid (mosque) in Islamabad).

These groups plan to join hands next Tuesday in a mass sit-in protest in Islamabad against Musharraf.

Several recent catalysts have helped the pan-Islamists smooth over some of their differences, including Musharraf's sacking of his chief justice, unrest in the South Waziristan tribal area, and a protest against vice by students linked to Lal Masjid.

Tribal unrest
Infighting between a segment of the Pakistani Taliban and foreign militants in South Waziristan that broke out last week has in effect turned into a broader battle against Pakistani security forces. Islamabad intervened by sending in troops to try to arrest or kill militant Uzbek leader Tahir Yaldeshiv.

The shura (councils) of North and South Waziristan put their feet down, and differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked foreigners have now been shelved to concentrate on battling the Pakistani security forces.

The Pakistani press widely reported Pakistani soldiers being killed in South Waziristan, and the flames of unrest took no time to spread to settled towns of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

On Wednesday, the Pakistani Taliban mobilized hundreds of men in an attempt to seize control of Tank, the NWFP town nearest South Waziristan. Local police were not able to control the situation, and the Pakistan Army and paramilitary troops were called in. They contained the situation and clamped a curfew on the town, although there are still reports of fighting.

Students against vice
On Tuesday, Musharraf addressed a rally in Rawalpindi and called on the masses to stand up against religious extremism. But only a few kilometers away in the federal capital Islamabad, young men and women associated with Lal Masjid's seminaries of Jamia Hafsa (for girls) and Jamia Faridia (for boys) were engaged in a powerful protest against vice.

The students (mostly women) took to the streets to persuade video shops not to sell "vulgar" movies. The campaign took a turn when the students seized a brothel owner in the Aapara area, where both the Taliban-supporting Lal Masjid and the state's Inter-Services Intelligence are situated. They held the woman hostage in their seminary.

Despite complaints, the government has been unable to do anything about the brothels in the area because of the unholy nexus between high-ups and the prostitutes.

Thus the students took matters into their own hands, much as the Taliban did as they emerged as a power in the 1990s in Afghanistan and in the Waziristan tribal areas.

The students had the full backing of prominent religious personalities Ghazi Abdul Rasheed and Maulana Abdul Aziz, the brothers who run the Lal Masjid and the men's and women's seminaries.

The police tried to broker the release of the brothel owner and, when they failed, they arrested two female teachers from the seminary. In a matter of minutes, students and followers of the Taliban blocked all important arteries in Aapara, and also took two police officers with their official vehicle as hostage.

When Aziz threatened to call a jihad, the two women were released, so the students then released the policemen. The brothel owner is still being held.

Speaking to Asia Times Online, Rasheed explained his feelings on a call for jihad. "The students from universities and colleges and youths from all walks of life ask why we do not call for jihad against a repressive regime, but I always say that the time is not ripe. But when pious lady teachers are punished and arrested for the sake of prostitutes, a call for jihad is imminent."

Rasheed and his brother Aziz command widespread support and are vocal in their backing of the Taliban. The authorities have on several occasions tried to have them arrested, but have always desisted for fear of a powerful backlash, both among the masses and segments of the establishment.

The chain that drags Musharraf
Deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhary is due to appear before a judicial council on Tuesday over allegations of abusing his position. His suspension has aroused countrywide anger and served as a rallying point for both the political and religious opposition to Musharraf.

Many thousands of protesters are expected literally to join hands in Islamabad on the day of Chaudhary's hearing. Most believe that he has been sidelined to allow Musharraf a clear run at retaining the presidency in elections this year, while also remaining army chief.

The occasion serves the Islamists' cause well, and they will be out in force not only in the capital but in other parts of the country.
Musharraf has few choices. He can continue the impossible fight against Islamists, at the behest of Western forces, all the way from the mountains of the Waziristans to the southern port city of Karachi and the deep seas of Gwadar, or switch sides and make a major compromise that could eventually support the emergence of a green crescent in Southwest Asia.

The wily Musharraf, though, has survived many challenges to his rule since taking power in a coup in 1999.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

Pakistan crosses a dangerous boundary (Mar 28, '07)

Waziristan jihadis wage war on each other (Mar 23, '07)

Shaky Musharraf holds only the military card (Mar 22, '07)

Musharraf's headache for the US (Mar 16, '07)

The Taliban's brothers in alms (Mar 14, '07)

Justice in the dock in Pakistan (Mar 13, '07)


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