Pakistan's Growing Chain of Violence

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Bullet marks are seen in a window of the car of Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani which was attacked in Islamabad, Pakistan, Wednesday, Sept 3, 2008.

A failed assassination attempt on Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in the capital Islamabad highlights insecurity in the nuclear-armed country just three days before a presidential election will name Pervez Musharraf's successor. Pakistan has been rocked by a spate of violence that has seen hundreds die in suicide bombings and explosions over the past month. At the same time, speculation is stirring that Wednesday's seemingly spur-of-the-moment attack on Gilani's convoy may have been retaliation for a U.S.-led attack earlier in the day along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Previous military activity in the same area has ratcheted up tensions between the trio of uneasy allies in the war against terror.

Two gunmen fired on the prime minister's motorcade as it drove from the prime minister's residence in Islamabad to pick him up at the airport in nearby Rawalpindi. The prime minister was due back from a visit to Lahore. Two shots hit the driver's window, shattering the bulletproof glass of the black Mercedes but doing no further damage. Acting Interior ministry head Rehman Malik described the incident as "a cowardly act," at a televised press briefing in Karachi. "We will catch whoever has done it," he said. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan claimed responsibility, telling Agence France Press, "We will continue such attacks on government officials and installations."

The gunmen fired from a low hill overlooking the principal highway between the two cities. It is the only route that connects them, and has been the site of several other assassination attacks over the years. Assassins attempted to kill former president and general Pervez Musharraf on a different part of the route connecting the two cities back in 2003; former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's convoy was attacked nearby on December 27th, the day that Prime Minister candidate and Pakistan People's Party chair Benazir Bhutto was killed in a suicide blast at an election rally in Rawalpindi.

Within moments of today's attack, police with sniffer dogs swarmed the hill in search of evidence that would lead to the killer's identity. Three men have been detained for questioning, but the shooters have not been found so far. Information minister Sherry Rehman announced the launch of an investigation, telling local television that " those who had designs, have failed." It is not clear yet if there was a breach in security — the roadside should have been checked out by a security detail long before the prime minister passed by. The grassy hill is topped by a neon sign depicting Pakistan's founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, though it was unlikely that it was chosen for symbolic value, rather for line of sight. Nevertheless, the attack was apparently an amateur attempt, notable as much for incompetence as for the constant threat it suggests Pakistan's leaders are under.

Malik defended the prime minister's security detail, saying that "even in the U.S. there are assassination attempts against leaders." Bhutto's widower, Presidential candidate Asif Ali Zardari, moved from his private Islamabad residence to the prime minister's house last week because of security fears. The attempt comes just weeks after Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud announced that his militants would target "every city" in Pakistan, in retaliation for a military crackdown on extremist groups in Pakistan's tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. Nearly two weeks ago, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the gate to a munitions factory not far from the capital, killing at least 63. Similar attacks, including one on a hospital in Peshawar, have claimed scores of lives.

The ad hoc and poorly-planned nature of today's attack has led some to speculate that it may be in retaliation for an early morning attack on a remote village in South Waziristan that killed 20 people, including women and children. Witnesses on the ground told the Associated Press that U.S. helicopter gunships had fired on the village, and that U.S. soldiers physically entered one of the houses. Military spokesman Maj. Murad Khan confirmed the attack, but would not say who was behind it. The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan said it had no report of activity in that area, though it is common in the case of cross border attacks launched by the U.S. that neither the American nor Pakistani government identify them as such, seeking to give Pakistan political coverage. The United States' rules of engagement in the region allow for "hot pursuit" across the border if militants fire upon foreign forces. In one such incident, 11 Pakistani soldiers died in June when U.S. aircraft bombed a border post. American troops on the Afghan side of the border claimed that militants were firing at them from the border post, and that they didn't know Pakistani troops were stationed there.

U.S. predator drones have also attacked high value targets in the tribal areas, most notably in 2006 when a missile aimed at Ayman al-Zawahiri killed 18 civilians in Damadola, a border village in Bajaur agency instead. Pakistan's foreign ministry released a statement calling the U.S. attack in South Waziristan "a gross violation of Pakistani territory" and said that it caused an "immense loss of civilian life" and that "Such actions are counter-productive and certainly do not help our joint efforts to fight terrorism. On the contrary, they undermine the very basis of cooperation and may fuel the fire of hatred and violence." Major General Athar Abbas, chief spokesman for the Pakistani military, blamed NATO-led American troops, saying, "We strongly object to the incursion of ISAF troops on Pakistani territory."