Bombings Put Pressure on Pakistani Politicians

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Emilio Morenatti / AP

Emergency-response teams inspect the site of an explosion in Islamabad on Oct. 9

Militant violence has shaken Pakistan yet again as two separate bombings targeted policemen in Islamabad and an area near the city of Peshawar, heightening anxiety across the country, where such attacks have now become a near daily occurrence. In the second bombing to hit Islamabad in the past three weeks, a suicide bomber rammed a car laden with explosives into the headquarters of the Anti-Terrorist Squad, located inside a police compound, injuring seven. Later, in the North-West Frontier Province, already the scene of conflict with militants, a roadside bombing struck a prison van, killing 10 people. The dead included two policemen, three prisoners and three schoolchildren who were traveling in a nearby bus.

The attacks came as lawmakers were gathering in parliament for a rare closed-room intelligence briefing on the rising threat of Islamist militancy. In the past week, three politicians have narrowly cheated death after being attacked by suspected militants at their homes.

The Islamabad blast was heard over a mile away, rattling windows as it thundered through the city's quiet suburbs just before 1 p.m. A column of white smoke rose high into the air as rescue vehicles raced through the streets, sirens blaring, in scenes now depressingly familiar to residents in the Pakistani capital. A corner of the three-story building had collapsed, reducing the brick walls to a heap of rubble. A 4-ft.-deep crater marked the site of explosion. Windows were smashed in nearby buildings. Trees were stripped of their leaves; a motorcycle lay nearby, charred and mangled.

Questions are being raised about how the car, described as small and green, could have pierced the high-security police compound. "We have heavy checking here. I don't know how the car got in," says Qamar Zaman, a member of the Anti-Terrorist Squad, who was in the building at the time. "I saw a suspicious man, dressed in a traffic police uniform. He could not have been more than 25. He came in to deliver a box of sweets, and then the explosion happened."

"The terrorists are sending a message: we can hit you at any time, anywhere," says Ayesha Siddiqa, an independent security analyst. The attacks mark the 90th and 91st bombings to have scarred Pakistan since the army siege of the Red Mosque in July 2007. More than 1,200 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the attacks. Last month's bombing of the Marriott Hotel, described as the biggest explosion in Pakistan's history, killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds.

Against the backdrop of bombings growing in frequency and geographical range, the government is scrambling to gather political forces behind a unified policy to combat the rising threat of militants who have wrenched control of swaths of the northwest. The army is currently locked in fierce battles on three fronts, most visibly in the Bajaur tribal area along the Afghan border, where it claims to have killed more than 1,000 militants, even as hundreds of thousands of locals have fled their homes.

The confidential security briefing to parliament, conducted by the incoming head of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, marks a belated effort by the government to rebrand Islamabad's involvement in the Bush Administration's war on terror as Pakistan's own fight. Until now, with opinion polls recording a majority opposing further cooperation with Washington, politicians have been sharply divided over the issue. Emerging from the briefing, a number of members of the opposition still complained that the conference was "superficial" and narrow in focus. But there are signs that Pakistan's political class has finally begun to face up to the perils that have moved their country up three spots — to ninth place — in a recent Foreign Policy magazine ranking of failing states.

Asfandyar Wali Khan, the leader of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party that runs the North-West Frontier Province, survived last Thursday's suicide bomber who killed four near the entrance of his home. After the attack, a visibly shaken Khan told reporters, "If they hit me, I'm going to hit back harder." On Monday, another parliamentarian escaped an assassination attempt after an attack on a meeting of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-N Party in southern Punjab. After the attack, which killed 15 and left the lawmaker injured, Sharif's younger brother signaled a break with the party's ambivalent position. "If we want to survive, we have to eliminate terrorists. Either we will survive, or they will survive," said Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab.

In the days since the Marriott bombing, security has been beefed up in Islamabad. Checkpoints, sandbag fortifications and coils of barbed wire now lie athwart the main roads and in front of government buildings. Diplomats' spouses and children have left, as have many foreign investors. And among those who remain, there is a rising fear that the once placid capital city has turned into one of the militants' principal targets. "It's not good, what is happening," says Mohammed Irfan, an optician in the F-11 market. "It's affecting my business very badly. I've lost 50% because people are no longer coming out. It's getting worse and worse. The politicians have to think how to get us out of this."