The latest in a spate of assassination attempts against Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has turned the battle of wits between the general and Islamic extremists into a battle for survival.
The Christmas Day attack occurred less than two weeks after another attempt on Mr. Musharraf's life - and just one day after Musharraf announced that he had cemented a deal with hard-line Islamic opponents that would keep him in power until 2007 if he stepped down as military chief.
The escalation in attacks is likely to harden the government's stance against suspected Islamic extremists - and puts security issues squarely at the center of Musharraf's agenda as Pakistan prepares to host a key South Asian leaders' summit next week. That gathering is seen as an opportunity for Musharraf to build on recent peace overtures with rival India's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee - something that has angered extremists.
"Now lines are drawn between him and extremists. Musharraf is a commando and will get strength from these attacks. He will take bold steps and move harder against militants," says analyst Talat Masood, a former Army lieutenant general. "These groups might see Musharraf's policies as detrimental to their interests. They want to eliminate him, thinking that the next guy will be too scared to check their activities."
Mr. Musharraf narrowly escaped the Dec. 25 attack by two suicide bombers, who rammed explosives-packed trucks into his convoy in Rawalpindi, killing at least 15 people. The attacks mirrored a Dec. 14 explosion on a bridge in Rawalpindi that narrowly missed his motorcade.
The attacks have sent shudders through the Pakistani establishment because of concern about security leaks. The attacks took place near military headquarters, and the bombers had precise information on the timing of the president's movements. They also knew which of the two "dupe motorcades" was the president's.
"The big question is how the president's convoy is attacked twice within 11 days. It seems those behind the assassination bids have infiltrated our top security outfits or have somehow gained access to sensitive information," says analyst Tauseef Ahmed.
The increasingly aggressive attempts on Musharraf's life have sounded alarm bells in Washington. A key US ally in the war on terror, Musharraf withdrew Islamabad's support for the ousted Taliban militia and jihadis in Pakistan after Sept. 11, infuriating extremists and their supporters within the military. Musharraf's security forces have arrested more than 500 Al Qaeda suspects and turned most of them over to the United States.
About three months ago, Al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in tapes broadcast over Middle East media, called on Muslims in Pakistan to overthrow Musharraf as part of "Islamic duty."
"It is now a battle of survival for the Islamic extremists who accuse Musharraf of betraying the cause of Islam and view the Taliban and Al Qaeda men as soldiers of Islam fighting against America," says a leading analyst, M.B. Naqvi.
"Extremists are not trying to change Pakistan's government; they are trying to kill Musharraf. They perceive [him] as a shield to US interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir and they want to get rid of him," he says.
Pakistan' top military-intelligence agencies and special police teams are homing in on the unconventional tactics of the Dec. 25 attackers. Previously, plotters used remote-control devices that failed. This latest assassination bid was a suicide bombing, a rare tactic for militants in Pakistan.
"They seem to be highly trained and organized," says federal Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hyat. "Suicide bombing anywhere is impossible to stop, but we are trying to ensure a foolproof security system for the president." He said the bombers have been identified as belonging to an extremist group he would not name.
"We suspect that individuals of a militant group having a possible nexus with Al Qaeda and Taliban may be behind the assassination attempt," says a senior police investigator. "We are working on different leads...."
General Musharraf recently banned 13 militant outfits in an ongoing crackdown against religious militancy, including Kashmiri militant groups. Several members of the banned groups have been detained. Security sources say one of the suicide bombers, Mohammad Jameel, belonged to a family from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Sources say Mr. Jameel had gone to Afghanistan to fight with the Taliban against the Northern Alliance and then against US forces.
The leading English newspaper, Dawn, quoted security sources as saying that the suicide bomber is suspected of having links with Al Jihad, a Kashmiri militant group.
Pakistan has long been a hub for Islamic militants who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops, thousands of militants fought against Indian security forces in Kashmir. In the following years, sources say, many Kashmiri militants were trained at Al Qaeda-run camps in the Afghan cities of Khost and Jalalabad.
Analysts say that Musharraf must move cautiously. "He is facing danger from everywhere," says Mr. Tauseef. "His power base is the armed forces, and he needs to keep that support intact as well as the continuation of his mission against extremists."
"Musharraf's survival is necessary not only for the people of Pakistan but to the US because militants want to make Pakistan a fortress for jihad. Musharraf is a target as he is seen as a hurdle," adds Mr. Masood.
• Material from wire services were used in this report.