Musharraf gets tough on militants

Pakistan’s security forces stormed the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) on Tuesday in Islamabad to flush out armed militants barricaded within the complex, a move that will likely help President Musharraf deflect international criticism that he has not been doing enough to contain the Taliban. But on the national front, things are a bit more complicated.

On Saturday Musharraf warned that the army would be ruthless. “We have been patient. They (militants) should come out and surrender, and if they don’t, I am saying this here and now: they will be killed.” Deputy chief cleric of the Lal Masjid, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, was among the dead as commandos stormed the complex. The chief cleric, Ghazi’s brother Abdul Aziz, had already been apprehended from the compound trying to escape dressed in a burqa. At least 50 others died in the shooting, according to military reports, while about the same number of women and children who had been held hostage were rescued.

The last Ghazi was heard from was a phone call to the Geo TV station in which he accused the authorities of “naked aggression” and said that his martyrdom was certain. Musharraf had prepared the background for the raid by getting Ejazul Haq, minister for religious affairs, to inform the media that the government had information that several internationally wanted terrorists were holed up inside the Lal Masjid complex, which includes seminaries for male and female Islamic scholars.

Trouble began brewing at the Lal Masjid early this year when its affiliated seminary for women, Jamia Hafsa, occupied a children’s library demanding reconstruction of six mosques that had been demolished because they stood on encroached land. They further demanded strict enforcement of the Shariah (Islamic law) followed by kidnapping an alleged brothel owner in a bid to chastise her.

By early April the mosque had set up an Islamic Shariah court and Maulana Abdul Aziz announced that any attempt to close it down would be met with revenge by thousands of suicide attacks. “Moral squads” of girls and boys from the seminary rampaged through the streets to “prevent vices and promote virtue”. Things came to a head when nine Chinese citizens, six of them women, were abducted last month. They were released a day later after diplomatic intervention. As the Lal Masjid standoff began to take new twists and turns, with each passing day, many critics viewed it as a stage-managed affair.

In a statement the chairman of the Communist Party of Pakistan, engineer Jameel Ahmad Malik, said: “The religious fundamentalist forces in Pakistan are the brainchild of the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), the Pakistani military intelligences, and American imperialism. The reference was to Pakistan-based Mujahideen or Islamist militants who successfully fought the Soviet army in Afghanistan through the 1980s with support from Washington. After the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan, Pakistan is also known to have diverted the Mujahideen to Kashmir to help with its protracted dispute with India over possession of the Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir.

Opposition parties in Pakistan have been accusing Musharraf of secretly encouraging Islamist radicalism to counter growing demands by secular political groups for restoration of the democratic process and the calling of elections. — IPS