Uzbek unrest shows Islamist rise
New explosions were heard in Tashkent Wednesday; so far 42 people have been killed in the violence.
TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN, AND MOSCOW
A woman's shoe, shreds of black cloth - once the chador uniform of a female suicide bomber - and several dried pools of blood remained Wednesday in Uzbekistan after four days of militant violence that has shaken Central Asia.Skip to next paragraph
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"Wahhabis," spat out residents, using their term for the radical Islamists who lived for a time in their Soviet-style apartment block before a gun battle Tuesday with police. Wednesday night, militants reportedly took hostages in Tashkent after a new round of blasts. Suicide attacks and explosions have so far claimed 42 lives, and police Wednesday have arrested at least 30 people.
A key ally in the US war on terror, Uzbekistan has not seen such lethal incidents in half a decade. Experts say the bloodshed could signal the resurgence of the regional Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which has revitalized itself in the lawless Pakistan-Afghan border area, under the leadership of Tohir Yuldashev. Or it could point to a violent offshoot of the local, moderate Hizb-ut-Tahrir, fed up with years of brutal crackdowns by Uzbek President Islam Karimov on Islamic believers of all types.
"If Karimov overreacts, then Yuldashev - or whoever else is responsible for this - will win, because they will attract a wider recruitment base," says Tamara Makarenko, a specialist on Central Asia militant groups at St. Andrews University in Scotland.
"Given the extremely repressive measures taken by President Karimov since the alliance with the US, I think Islamic militancy has only increased," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia," who was reached by phone in Lahore, Pakistan.
"There will be more of this, because there is probably quite a reservoir of people willing to do it," says Mr. Rashid. "Clearly the idea is to get public support by targeting the police, and provoke some public reaction."
The IMU was battered in the 2001 Afghan war, while fighting alongside Al Qaeda and the Taliban. And Uzbek officials have often declared victory over the group. Mr. Karimov, who has ruled the country since 1989, has already used the attacks to his advantage, casting Uzbekistan as firmly on the front line against terrorism, and in the US camp.
Any American support for such a heavy hand "will have a ripple effect back into Afghanistan, back into [Pakistan's] tribal areas, and back into [Uzbekistan's militant] Fergana Valley, which has been relatively quiet," Ms. Makarenko says.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell called his Uzbek counterpart Tuesday to offer assistance into a government investigation, though the State Department's spokesman noted Wednesday that "more democracy is the best antidote to terror."
Despite long-standing concerns about Uzbekistan's human rights record, Washington enlisted Tashkent's help before its 2001 Afghan campaign. US forces ever since have used the Soviet-built Khanabad air base near the Afghan border as a key staging post for the war. In 2002, the US signed a strategic partnership agreement with Tashkent.
But the hopes of pro-democracy campaigners and of Uzbekistan's embattled opposition that the US presence might force cracks in Karimov's authoritarian rule have not been realized.
Thousands of devout Muslims have been arrested and held in recent years, sometimes for nothing more than praying. Membership is outlawed in the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which rejects violence but calls for a pan-Islamic state.
Karimov explicitly blamed this group for the latest attacks, though his ministers broadened their charges, stating that the Uzbek events are "links in the same chain" of global terrorism.