Uzbek unrest shows Islamist rise

New explosions were heard in Tashkent Wednesday; so far 42 people have been killed in the violence.

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.

"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."

Resilient militants

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.

The Uzbek attacks may be the result of a "cross-pollination" of Islamic groups, says Rashid. "The big debate has been, especially in Hizb-ut-Tahrir, whether to use violence or not," he says. "This could be a splinter group that decided to go down the path of violence, or part of the IMU underground."

"The repression is enormous in Uzbekistan, and by it the government has driven many people into the arms of the extremists," says Marina Pikulina, an independent political researcher in Tashkent.

"When the militants seemed to target only policemen, I think they gained some sympathy," says Ms. Pikulina. "But not after it was clear they also killed randomly. People are very afraid now to get caught up between the government crackdown and the militants."

One tale making the rounds points to deep despair: A woman supposedly blew herself up Monday morning at the Chorsu market "with her 6-year-old son" says Pikulina.

"People say - and this is our only source of information, since the government does not tell us what happened - that this women's husband was accused of being a member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir and put into prison," Pikulina adds. "This is why the woman went to Afghanistan into a training camp and now killed herself. This was the action of a desperate woman, who did not see a way out."

Explosive four days

The first explosion took place Sunday evening in the town of Bukhara, when 10 people were killed in an apparent bomb-making house. Two more attacks overnight hit police, killing three. Then Monday morning two women suicide bombers struck in Tashkent. Other attacks Tuesday morning included two suicide bombers who detonated explosive belts at a police checkpoint. Nearby, police shot a black-clad woman in the knees, as she approached a bus. She then detonated a bomb. Three accomplices escaped to the Soviet apartment block - one of four sites where gun battles reportedly took place that day.

The attacks could be the work of IMU sleeper cells that are believed to have been in place since 2000, and whose members may have been able to correspond with Yuldashev's core IMU group in Pakistan's border areas, says Makarenko.

The spike in violence is "good timing for the IMU to say, 'You are still vulnerable,' " says Makarenko, even as the US is getting "somewhat overconfident" by conducting numerous raids along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and has officially enlisted Pakistani help that officials say nearly netted the IMU chief last week.

"Yuldashev has been very busy the last couple years, building an infrastructure," says Makarenko. A more radical, ideological IMU is growing from "all the [Al Qaeda and Taliban] remnants scattered around the [Afghan-Pakistan] border, willing to latch onto anything."

With the US presence and the IMU's long-standing effort to topple Karimov, Uzbekistan was a logical target. "I think [IMU chiefs] said: 'We've built ourselves to an extent that we can afford to do this, and let's do it where they don't expect it,' " Makarenko adds. "Bombs going off in Afghanistan, who cares? But in Uzbekistan, you win global attention."

Rebels also win revenge against a leader who has not been shy about confronting believers. Karimov has never withdrawn his 1998 statement to parliament that Islamic extremists "must be shot in the head," and that "if necessary, I'll shoot them myself."

Allison Gill, a Central Asia researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch - which released on Tuesday a 300-page report detailing abuses in Uzbekistan - says rights campaigners fear an intensification of the crackdown on the devout.

"According to our knowledge, there has been hardly any serious investigation done after [these latest] attacks," says Ms. Gill. "This makes it very easy for prosecutors to manipulate evidence against the accused, which happens frequently in Uzbekistan."

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