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
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
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[email protected]