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Pakistani leader's bold move

Musharraf's risky raid on the extremist Red Mosque may pay political dividends.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Behroz KhanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / July 11, 2007


Tuesday morning, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made one of the most dramatic decisions of his six-year participation in the war on terror.

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By authorizing a raid against a rebel mosque in the capital city of Islamabad, he took decisive action against Pakistani extremists – something critics charge that he has so far been loath to do. The leaders of the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, had taken hostages, preached anti-Western rhetoric, and for six months defied government orders to close.

The raid has already sparked outrage and violence in Pakistan's hinterlands, where the roots of Islamist extremism are deepest. But it has also accomplished something almost unheard of in recent months: an outpouring of support for the embattled president.

With most Pakistanis as weary of terrorism as the international community, the operation is seen by many as a decision long overdue. Yet despite intimations that this strike will herald a new offensive against growing extremism in Pakistan, there is broad skepticism that Mr. Musharraf has the will to maintain such momentum.

The brazen defiance by the leaders of the Red Mosque in Islamabad "forced [Musharraf's] hand," says Dennis Kux, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington. "But if he went all-out, he would have a lot more trouble on his hands."

The situation at the Red Mosque simmered for months until it finally burst into full-scale violence last Tuesday.

Leaders of the mosque and students from an affiliated madrassah, or religious school, had barricaded themselves into the complex, protesting an order to destroy the mosque, which the government claimed was illegally built.

Government authorities say the assault began at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning, when troops stormed the compound and were met with machine-gun fire and grenade attacks.

At press time, officials claimed that government troops controlled 70 percent of the compound, and were fighting the students from room to room.

They estimated that 70 militants had been captured, while as many as 60 had been killed, along with eight soldiers and the leader of the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

The condition of an unknown number of women and children trapped in the compound was not yet known, though officials said 50 had been rescued so far.

Despite the reports of bloodshed, the anger of most Pakistanis Tuesday appeared to be directed at the clerics of the Red Mosque, not the president.

"All those inside are terrorists and they have held innocent people and students hostage," says Bakht Rawan of Peshawar, whose relatives had sent their children to the seminary for studies. "Maulana [Abdul] Rashid Ghazi is responsible for all the killings and sufferings of parents and their children trapped inside the compound," he adds.

Even in Peshawar, about 100 miles west of Islamabad where the Taliban have exerted increasing influence, many agree with him. "We have earned a very bad name in the world because of some crazy people like [this]," says Naseeb Zada, a schoolteacher here. "What is happening should have happened much earlier."