Pakistan on the Verge

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AAMIR QURESHI / AFP / Getty Images

Former Pakistani students of the radical Islamic Red Mosque weep as they walk on the rubble of Jamia Hafsa, an Islamic girls seminary, in the compound of the Red Mosque demolished by the government in Islamabad on July 27.

Pakistani authorities have pledged to investigate Friday's bombing in the capital, Islamabad — the second apparent suicide bombing in a week — but no official inquiry is needed to tell Pakistanis that their country is in the middle of a fast-escalating crisis. Hanging in the balance: the presidency of Pervez Musharraf and the future of Pakistan itself. "We always have one or two crises on our hands [in Pakistan], but this is critical," says I.A. Rehman, chairman of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, a non-governmental group.

Friday's bombing occurred after yet another violent struggle for control of the controversial Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, in central Islamabad, which has become a symbol of the extremist anti-Musharraf movement in the country. Government forces stormed the mosque in early July to dislodge hundreds of armed militants who had assembled there to call for the implementation of Islamic law in Pakistan. The raid, though eventually successful, left dozens of people dead and sparked a wave of attacks across the country against government security forces.

Last week the government repainted it and installed a moderate imam in the place of the fiery extremist leaders whom it blames for this month's violence. But when it was reopened Friday, hundreds of the mosque's former students clashed with police and overran the building, daubing its pale walls with red paint. Police fired tear gas and arrested dozens of protesters. The suicide bomb went off in a restaurant behind the mosque just as police had finally taken control of the riot. The explosion killed at least 13 people, including eight policemen who had gathered as part of the security detail around the mosque. Witnesses say parts of shredded police uniforms scattered the street amid pools of blood and body parts.

At the time of the blast, President Musharraf, who has been one of Washington's closest allies in the war on terrorism, was reportedly in Abu Dhabi in a secret meeting with Benazir Bhutto, a long-time political foe, former Pakistani prime minister and opposition leader now living in exile in London. Musharraf is under pressure not only from Islamic extremists based in the lawless frontier lands along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan — a U.S. report issued two weeks ago warned that al-Qaeda and the Taliban had reconstituted in the area — but also from Pakistan's middle-class moderates, who are angry with the President for what they see as his ham-fisted attempts over the past four months to oust the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, a potential obstacle to Musharraf's plans for re-election.

Pakistan's newspapers speculate that Musharraf, unpopular and increasingly isolated, may be considering running some sort of political accommodation with Bhutto, leader of the still popular Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Bhutto fled to Europe amidst corruption charges in Pakistan after the collapse of her second government in the early 1990s. Presidential advisers and Bhutto aides seemed surprised when news of the secret get-together was first reported, suggesting that very few officials in either camp knew about the meeting, though a minister later confirmed it had taken place.

Musharraf has long said he would not cut deals with Bhutto or with Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister from whom Musharraf seized power in 1999 and who is now also living in exile. If Musharraf has met with Bhutto, it is a measure of how vulnerable he feels. Many Pakistanis share the sentiment. As I rose to leave after an interview Saturday with Syed Kamran Zafar, an Islamabad-based official for Bhutto's PPP, he urged me not to visit any markets in Islamabad. "Stay clear of anywhere it is crowded," he implored, sounding scared himself. "I mean it. These bastards are killing innocent people. Why don't they go after army generals?"