Storming the Red Mosque

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Anjum Naveed / AP

Paramilitary troops move towards forward positions at Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in Islamabad

The consequences were immediate and deadly when last-minute negotiations at Islamabad's besieged Red Mosque failed Monday night. A group of religious and political leaders, including former Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, had offered militant mosque leader Abdul Rashid Ghazi one last chance to surrender. "I am returning very disappointed," said Hussain. "We offered him a lot, but he wasn't ready to agree to our terms." A day later, Ghazi was killed at the Red Mosque, not far from the very place where his father, the mosque's founder, was slain by unknown assailants in 1998. Minutes after the pre-dawn announcement that the talks had failed, explosions and gunfire thundered through the capital as Pakistani special forces launched Operation Silence, intended to be the military's final charge in the eight-day standoff between the government and radical students and clergy holed up inside the mosque complex. For more than 13 hours, the sound of fierce fighting has rattled the leafy neighborhood in the center of the capital. Security forces report that the militants are responding with RPGs, machine gun fire and petrol bombs. The seminary complex, which includes a women's religious school, has been booby-trapped with landmines, and militants were shooting from the minarets. An estimated 50 militants have been killed so far in this latest operation, and an additional 80 have surrendered or attempted to escape, according to the security forces spokesman. Eight soldiers have died as well.

Interior minister Aftab Sherpao says that some 80% of the complex has been cleared out. Officers say Ghazi was holed up in one of the mosque's basements, reportedly surrounded by women and children from the women's school. Many of the female students have been just as active, if not more so, as their male counterparts in the madrassah's six-month-long anti-government campaign. However, the presence of perceived innocents serves as a protective shield for the mosque leader — and could serve him as a last-ditch propaganda campaign.

Ghazi had told reporters that he was prepared to be a martyr, though only few may perceive him as such. For the moment, the public has been behind government forces, but large numbers of dead civilians, particularly women and children, could yet turn public opinion against them. That may have been part of Ghazi's plan.

So far, the government's cautious handling of the siege has worked in President Pervez Musharraf's favor. Security forces have clearly done their utmost over the past week to protect the lives of civilians, offering negotiations, amnesties, cash and even alternative schooling to students who surrender. However, the drawn-out face-off has allowed anti-government sentiment to fester in militant communities throughout the country. Three incidents in the tribal areas over the weekend, in addition to a possible machine-gun attack on Musharraf's plane as he prepared to fly to the flood-ravaged province of Baluchistan on Friday, cost the lives of four police. Armed tribesmen chanting anti-government slogans blocked the Karakoram highway near the northern border with China, and in the central city of Multan, hundreds of religious students blocked roads with burning tires and chanted "Down With Musharraf." Clerics at several radical mosques are denouncing what they see as law enforcement agencies attacking fellow Muslims. The banned militant group Tehrik Nifaz-Shariat-e-Mohammadi has used FM radio stations in a district north of Peshawar to instruct its followers to carry out jihad against the government, as has a radical cleric in the northern district of Swat.

Fears of just such a backlash may have been what kept the government from acting sooner against the Red Mosque clerics and students, whose anti-government campaign began in January when they occupied a children's library. Emboldened by the government's inaction, students set out on a vigilante rampage in the capital, harassing video and music shops for promoting un-Islamic behavior and kidnapping alleged prostitutes. Each new episode was met with feeble government response or half-hearted negotiations.

Indeed, some critics suggest that the antics of the Red Mosque students served as a convenient distraction from the President's plummeting popularity. "My impression is that if it was not in collusion, the government was at least encouraging this," says Brig. (ret) Shaukat Qadir. "The judicial crisis had grown to enormous proportions, and Musharraf wanted to reestablish that fact that he was essential to country. But somewhere along the way things got out of hand."

Measured yet forceful action is helping Musharraf regain some public trust, but it may not be enough to counteract popular disillusionment with his increasingly desperate attempts to cling to power. This weekend in London the Pakistan All Parties Conference — made up of leading opposition members, including exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whom Musharraf overthrew in a bloodless coup in 1999 — agreed to resign in protest should Musharraf go ahead with his plan to be re-elected by the current, hand-picked assembly. The only party that demurred is former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party. Rumors are rife that Musharraf may be considering a power-sharing deal with Bhutto in which in exchange for her party's support, he would ensure that all charges of corruption against her are lifted.

Were Musharraf to call for parliamentary elections early, as some analysts suggest he might, the president-general could hope that his party, the Pakistan Muslim League, would be able to capitalize on a popularity spike caused by his successful resolution of the Red Mosque crisis. A PML majority would ensure Musharraf another term with a clear mandate, though it wouldn't dispel the constitutional questions over him being both Chief of Army Staff and President. It's a risky strategy, and so is the ongoing siege at the Red Mosque. Dividends will depend on how many, and what kind, of bodies are carried out of the compound when it's all over.