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    South Asia
     Jul 4, 2007
Pakistan in crisis over mosque attack
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - After months of playing cat and mouse, Pakistani paramilitary forces were on Tuesday let loose against Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad, run by outspoken brothers Maulana Abdul Aziz and Ghazi Abdul Rasheed.

Analysts see the action as the precursor to a major operation in Pakistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, whose ideological heartland is the controversial mosque. The brothers also run large

Islamic seminaries - madrassas - for thousands of boys and girls.

The government has been reluctant to take action against the clerics and students as they have widespread support all the way to the volatile tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. The students have had several run-ins with the authorities over their attempts to impose Taliban-style social values in the capital, but in all cases the government has backed off.

The government of President General Pervez Musharraf is deeply concerned that the brothers have considerable influence within the establishment, not to mention the masses and jihadist circles. Last week, Musharraf claimed that suicide bombers from an al-Qaeda-linked militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, were in the mosque.

Musharraf is under pressure from the United States to take action against the Taliban, who have taken control of large swaths on the border with Afghanistan, and al-Qaeda, whose presence in the country is growing.

Apparently, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, gave his tacit support for the government to confront the Taliban. The opposition six-party religious alliance, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), is also said to have agreed with Musharraf during a National Security Council meeting on Monday that extremism should be confronted with "iron hands".

Nevertheless, this is not the pulse of the whole country. MMA president Qazi Hussain Ahmed is strongly behind Lal Masjid and on Wednesday is expected to call for it to be supported.

Clashes at the mosque began after masked security personnel erected fences on all the roads leading to the mosque in the heart of Islamabad. Within half an hour, dozens of student vigilantes, also wearing masks, tried to move the barricades, and clashes ensued.

There have been reports of tear gas being fired, and shots have been heard. The students used stones to pelt the police. Early reports indicated that several people might already have died; certainly there have been injuries.

As soon as the firing started, Aziz announced on the mosque's loudspeakers that the students should put on suicide jackets and be ready to carry out attacks on any security people entering the mosque.

This spooked the security personnel and they retreated, but were instructed to maintain the siege. Appeals were also made on the loudspeakers for the residents of Islamabad to help the students and "mujahideen". Some government buildings in Islamabad are reported to have been attacked.

Contacts in jihadist circles told Asia Times Online that there will be a reaction all over the country, including in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar. They claimed that more than 1,000 jihadis were already on their way to the capital.

The jihadi contacts also said any peace agreements with the government in Bajur agency and the Waziristan tribal areas would be terminated. After a series of disastrous military offensives to try to contain militancy and Taliban activities in the tribal areas, the government made several deals under which it withdrew its troops and made peace deals.

Indeed, it was a fatwa - religious decree - issued by the brothers at Lal Masjid that provoked the fierce reaction against the Pakistani military presence in the tribal areas. The fatwa called on people not to say funeral prayers or bury soldiers in Muslim graveyards if they were killed fighting against the Taliban.

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.)

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