Pakistan's iron fist is to the US's
liking By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - A last-minute intervention by
Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf ended
nine hours of negotiations seeking a peaceful end
to the siege of the radical Lal Masjid (Red
Mosque) in Islamabad.
Apparently saying he
was "heavily under duress from his allies", the
president in the early hours of Tuesday instead
ordered in the military to end the seven-day saga.
Unconfirmed reports even say that Musharraf
personally led the assault, along with Corps
Lieutenant-General Tariq Majid. The media were
barred from the mosque's immediate vicinity.
Asia Times Online contacts believe that
Musharraf was referring to Washington, which has
in the past few months stepped up pressure on its
partner in the "war on terror" to take action
against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and foreign
militants inside Pakistan.
When the siege
of Lal Masjid began a week ago, the administration
of US President George W Bush was fulsome in its
praise that something was being done, as the
mosque is a known supporter of al-Qaeda and the
Taliban, and even a safe haven for militants.
According to the contacts, Musharraf said,
"They want targets in Operation Silence,"
referring to the code name for Tuesday's final
assault on the mosque. That is, the militants
should be arrested or killed.
US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack,
commenting on terror, said, "We believe Pakistan
is a good ally, a good friend in fighting terror.
They have an issue there with violent extremism.
It's an issue that affects the Pakistani people as
well as others in the region and the US."
By Tuesday afternoon, Pakistani forces
were in the final stages of clearing the mosque.
They encountered fierce resistance, but the mosque
itself was said to be secure. There was still
resistance from fighters holed up in a nearby
women's seminary associated with the mosque.
Pakistani media reported that at least 40 fighters
and three soldiers had been killed.
fate of Abdul Rasheed Ghazi is not known. He and
his brother Abdul Aziz run the mosque. Ghazi was
quoted on Geo TV as saying his mother had been
wounded by gunfire. "The government is using full
force. This is naked aggression. My martyrdom is
certain now," the television station quoted him as
saying. Aziz was captured on Wednesday while
trying to leave the mosque disguised as a women in
a full-length veil.
At 5am, Ghazi sent
text messages to journalists, including this one,
saying, "My death is certain." One of the
ideologues of the mosque, Ume Hassan, Aziz' wife,
was arrested with her daughter Asma and 30
hardcore members of the Women's Brigade of Lal
The storming of the mosque is the
first seizure of Taliban assets in Pakistan and is
certain to have a strong ripple effect throughout
the country as the mosque has strong links with
jihadis and the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal
areas on the border with Afghanistan.
Although the offensive in Pakistan's
federal capital - which has captured international
headlines - is finally playing out, one question
remains. Who is the real director of the drama?
Observers and analysts believe there might be
several - one running the show separately in Lal
Masjid, and others pulling strings from the
outside. If so, there can be no clean, simple end
to the saga.
The next episode has already
begun in Batkhaila, North West Frontier Province,
where the pro-Taliban
Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Moham has clashed with
the military and seized all highways in the area,
including on the Silk Road leading to China.
It is only a matter of time before the
US-led "war on terror" formally crosses the
When the talking
stopped Lengthy talks before the military
assault led to an agreement - at about 2am - on a
safe passage for Ghazi. This was couched in terms
of an "honorable arrest" - brief protective
The high-profile negotiating team
included the Grand Mufti of Pakistan, Mufti Rafi
Usmani; Minister of Religious Affairs Ejaz ul-Haq;
and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, a former premier and
president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League.
At this point, Ghazi said he would consult
with his colleagues, and Hussain went off to
confer with Musharraf for final approval of the
agreement. Musharraf had earlier approved safe
passage as an option.
When the two sides
communicated again - via loudspeakers and mobile
telephones - Ghazi apparently then wanted to know
what would happen to the "foreign militants"
inside the mosque. And crucially, Musharraf had
changed almost all of the agreements in the draft.
The authorities then told members of the
negotiating team to return to their hotels, and at
4:30am 111 Brigade of the 10th Corps moved into
"Yes, the talks were successful.
The draft was written. Abdul Rasheed Ghazi was to
be allowed a safe passage, but then the draft was
sent to the president and he amended it. Things
were back to Square 1 and the talks failed," a
dejected Grand Mufti Usmani told Asia Times Online
by telephone. He rarely leaves his seminary in
Karachi, but was specially invited to Islamabad by
the government for the talks.
confirmed that Ghazi was to be given a safe
passage, but then had suddenly expressed concern
for "foreign militants" and the situation changed.
Asia Times Online talked to several members of the
negotiating team but they said Ghazi never
specifically mentioned "foreign militants". "He
always asked for guarantees for him as well as for
those who were with him inside, but he never
mentioned 'foreign militants'," said Maulana Hanif
Jalandari, the secretary general of the Federal
Board of Islamic Seminaries.
Online contacts claim that the situation was
complicated by the sudden appearance of a
delegation of members of Parliament belonging to
the government's coalition partners, the Muttahida
Quami Movement. They are believed to have met with
a US official at his official residence, after
which the situation changed within an hour.
The end of a long saga Lal
Masjid leaped into prominence in 2004 when the
prayer leader, Aziz, Ghazi's brother, issued a
fatwa (religious decree) that any Pakistani
soldiers killed in the tribal area of South
Waziristan should not be entitled to Muslim
funeral prayers or be buried in Muslim graveyards.
The army was at the time engaged in an
offensive against al-Qaeda and foreign militants
in the area.
The controversial decree was
then signed by 500 Muslim scholars and it ignited
serious discontent in the army, eventually
prompting Pakistan to pull out from South
Waziristan and North Waziristan after striking
peace deals with the Pakistani Taliban.
Later, the authorities claimed that a link
between the Lal Masjid brothers and al-Qaeda had
been exposed when Ghazi's car - laden with arms
and ammunition - was recovered from a person named
The religious community intervened
and asked for evidence. Religious Affairs Minister
ul-Haq was tasked with mediating and ensuring an
impartial investigation by Military Intelligence.
Ghazi spent a few weeks in custody, but no direct
connections with terror were established, except
that he knows all the main players, including
Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar,
who have corresponded with him.
London transit bombings in July 2005, when reports
indicated that some of the perpetrators had
visited Lal Masjid, it again came under official
scrutiny, but no action was taken. Soon after, the
brothers were declared wanted criminals, but no
attempt was made to arrest them.
January, the authorities started a program to
demolish mosques built on unauthorized land.
Notice was served on Lal Masjid for illegal
encroachment on government land by building Jamia
Hafsa, a large women's madrassa (seminary)
next to the mosque.
Hundreds of girls
occupied a nearby public library in protest and
the conflict escalated when female vigilantes
abducted alleged prostitutes and closed down video
shops, at the same time demanding the
implementation of sharia law in Islamabad. Lal
Masjid was declared a countrywide movement. The
authorities backed off and no action was taken
against the mosque.
Now they have finally
moved, and there will surely be serious
consequences, given the mosque's iconic status
Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau
Chief. He can be reached at