Islamabad: The battle for the Red Mosque ended on Wednesday (11 July) after two full days of fighting between Pakistani special forces and Islamist militants holed up in its basement bunkers, leaving at least 60 dead and the death toll was almost certain to rise.
Even as security forces were still scouring the mosque compound for land mines, weapons and bodies, it was apparent that the eight-day siege represented a watermark for Pakistan, and a potentially decisive one for its embattled president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The issue now was whether the fight signaled a broader, sustained confrontation with Islamist radicals or was a one-time imperative prompted by the truculence of the militants inside the mosque.
“Those are the very questions that will have to be sorted out: Is this going to be the first shot across the bow, or was this a one-off he was compelled to do because the script went wrong?” said, Najam Sethi, the editor of The Daily Times. “That is not clear at the moment.”
The mosque siege antagonized Islamist extremists, whose influence has steadily spread to Pakistani cities, including Islamabad, the capital, from the remote tribal regions where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have made a home.
On Wednesday 11 July, in an Internet recording, Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s second in command, urged revenge against the Musharraf government. “This crime can only be washed by repentance or blood,” he said in the recording, posted on web sites used by Islamists. The authenticity of the recording could not be immediately verified.
After 36 hours of fighting at the mosque, there was still no final tally of the dead, no clarity about how many of those inside were hostages rather than fighters and no information about how many of the militants were from other parts of the country or abroad.
Reuters reported that the military had extracted 73 bodies from the compound. The military said at least 50 militants and 9 members of the security forces had been killed in the past two days; another security officer was killed last week in a clash at the mosque. The final toll, particularly the numbers of women and children, could bear on the public reaction to the operation.
General Musharraf already finds his political and popular standing severely eroded. He has faced months of protests over his suspension of the Supreme Court’s chief justice. Elections are expected this fall, and it remains unclear whether General Musharraf will be allowed to be re-elected president while remaining the commander in chief of the army.
The general’s supporters regarded the strike as a vital measure to restore the writ of the state. “This was certainly a needed, even if a tragic, way of state reasserting its authority,” said Nasim Zehra, an independent political analyst here.
General Musharraf’s move has already won support from the Bush administration, which the general counts as one of his crucial international backers. Pakistan’s post-9/11 alliance with Washington has earned the country billions of dollars in military and economic aid.
On 10 July, Pakistan received two American F-16 fighter jets for its air force. An American Embassy news release described the jets as “an important manifestation of the growing strategic partnership between the United States and Pakistan.”
Hinting at how the mosque standoff could alter the political calculus, Benazir Bhutto, the exiled leader of the country’s largest opposition party, also offered an unusual endorsement of the government’s action.
But while the assault may have appeased some secular Pakistanis who have urged the general to rein in the extremists, it no doubt inflamed the religious right. On Wednesday, criticism poured in from religious parties and madrasa leaders. A consortium of 13,000 religious schools, called the Wifaq-ul-Madaris al-Arabia, announced a nationwide strike for Friday.
That action was mild compared with what many still feared, that the Red Mosque siege would become a rallying cry for Islamic extremists, who have twice tried to kill General Musharraf since he took power in 1999.
“This has focused the opposition to the nation state by the militant Islamists,” said Fasih Bokhari, a retired navy admiral who has been a staunch critic of the president. “The Musharraf government has firmly placed itself against Islamization.” He said he could not see what benefits would accrue from the assault, only further antagonism from the religious right.
Just how few good options had remained for General Musharraf before the assault was abundantly clear. The government pledged more than five years ago to clean up its most radical madrasas and crack down on the extremist groups that they feed.
It has had limited success so far, not least because it has nurtured or tolerated some of the same groups for years. The government has long depended on them for political support at home, as well as for leverage against its rivals India and Afghanistan.
Revealing the delicacy of the situation, government officials alternated between reassuring the public that they were not waging war against all madrasas and at the same time trying to ward off further challenges to the state’s authority.
“The government of Pakistan has nothing against madrasas,” Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters. “But any madrasa which violates the law or promotes militancy will clearly be dealt with under the law.”
Ijaz ul-Haq, the Pakistani religious affairs minister, broke down in tears on a television talk show. “God willing, we will continue to protect the madrasas the way we protect our homes.”
His father, Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, a former president, is credited with emboldening radical Islamist groups in this country. Mr. Haq, for his part, attended a Catholic school.
The Red Mosque enjoyed decades of government backing but lately had become a source of embarrassment for General Musharraf as its leaders used their students to carry out Taliban-style antivice campaigns. Mr. Haq told the privately owned Geo television network that it had become a sanctuary for militants from other parts of the country.
“I with much regret have to say that this was a hub for all types of terrorists,” he said. “Anyone involved in any unlawful activity anywhere used to get protection here.”
He did not explain why the government, armed with this knowledge, had not taken action until a week ago.
On Wednesday 11July, Tariq Azim Khan, the minister of state for information, acknowledged that the government had been hard pressed to act against a religious institution, as any government would be. “You have to think not twice, but maybe three times before doing anything,” he said.
Salman Masood contributed reporting.