Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf, a close ally of US President George W. Bush, backed off from plans to storm a mosque controlled by militants in the heart of Pakistan's capital Islamabad, deciding that a negotiated solution to the standoff is still possible.
The siege of the Red Mosque, whose leaders have sought to impose Taliban style rule in Islamabad, is proving a rallying point for at least some of Mr. Musharraf's Islamist opponents, the Associated Press reports.
The siege sparked an anti-government protest Monday by some 20,000 tribesmen, including hundreds of masked militants wielding assault rifles, in the northwest region of Bajur.
Many chanted "Death to Musharraf" and "Death to America" in a rally led by Maulana Faqir Mohammed, a cleric wanted by authorities and who is believed to be a close lieutenant of al-Qaida No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
"All of Musharraf's policies are against Islam and the country therefore he has become our enemy. He will not be spared and revenge will be taken against him for these atrocities," he said.
Reuters reports that Pakistani soldiers fired tear gas into the Red Mosque compound and traded gunfire with an estimated 200 to 500 militants inside late on Monday, but there was "no sign of an imminent assault."
The mosque has an attached school for girls, and the government is worried about the fallout from an assault that could result in the deaths of many unarmed women and children. At least 21 people have died in the violence, and government forces have tried to give women and children a chance to evacuate the compound.
A woman who feared her daughter had been killed and buried inside the compound waited with around a dozen other anxious parents behind barbed wire barriers. "I request the law enforcement agencies to let me go
inside. I can go alone, and I know nobody will fire from inside. I know these people very well," Asia Bibi said, adding she wanted to discover her daughter's fate for herself.
There are concerns some children have been either coerced or persuaded to stay behind to act as human shields.
The Los Angeles Times reports that Pakistani authorities are denying claims made by Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the cleric leading the militants inside the mosque, that 300 of his followers have been killed by the security forces.
Pakistan's leading English language newspaper, The Dawn, reports that a helicopter flyover of the compound on Sunday revealed no signs of dead or injured students. The paper also says the government is being pressured by clerics to promise freedom to Mr. Ghazi in exchange for surrender, but the government is ruling that out.
Interior Minister Aftab Sharpao told reporters that the government would never provide a safe passage to Maulana Ghazi. He said the government was avoiding an attack on the mosque in order to save the lives of innocent students who had been made hostage by hardcore militants.
Talking to Dawn, Interior Secretary Syed Kamal Shah said that at least 15 suicide bombers were present in the mosque and they had been given explosive belts. "We also have information that militants have heavy
ammunition, landmines and rocket launchers," he said.
The British Broadcasting Corp. carries a profile of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, describing him as once having a "relatively westernized lifestyle" when he worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
His life changed when his father Abdullah Aziz, who headed the Red Mosque, was shot dead by a lone gunman, believed to be from a rival Islamic group. There are dark hints of links with Pakistani intelligence services, and then the Taleban in Afghanistan.
What is clear is that by the time the US launched its campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan's President Musharraf chose to support it, Abdul Rashid Ghazi's friends said there was no trace left of the moderate history student.
President Musharraf, who came to power in a coup, receives large amounts of aid from the US, and his government has been intimately involved with US efforts in neighboring Afghanistan. But the pro-Taliban sentiments of many Pakistanis, and the desire of many there for religious rule, has at times made him a reluctant partner, and left President Bush leery of pushing too hard.
The New York Times reports that the US military thought it knew where Al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri and other Al Qaeda leaders were hiding inside Pakistan in early 2005, but a planned raid to capture the men was called off because administration officials worried it would "jeopardize relations with Pakistan."
But the mission was called off after Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, rejected an 11th-hour appeal by Porter J. Goss, then the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, officials said. Members of a Navy Seals unit in parachute gear had already boarded C-130 cargo planes in Afghanistan when the mission was canceled, said a former senior intelligence official involved in the planning. The decision to halt the planned "snatch and grab" operation frustrated some top intelligence officials and members of the military's secret Special Operations units, who say the United States missed a significant opportunity to try to capture senior members of Al Qaeda.
In recent months, the White House has become increasingly irritated with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for his inaction on the growing threat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Certainly, the Pakistani economy has benefited from increased American support in exchange for the country's cooperation in the "war on terror," reports The Christian Science Monitor. It's a familiar cycle for Pakistan, which is no stranger to American interventions. The Pakistani economy grew at a rate of 6.5 percent annually in both the 1960s, when Pakistan allowed the US to base anti-Soviet spy planes there, and the 1980s, when Pakistan served as America's "front line" against the Soviets in Afghanistan. When US support dwindled, economic growth fell to 2.7 and 4 percent, respectively.
This same has been true this time. The government is receiving some $2.5 billion a year from other countries – mostly the US – and, more important, it had much of its debt forgiven in return for its pledge to fight terrorism after Sept. 11.
Before 2001, one-third of the budget went toward paying debts and economic growth was at 2 percent. Because of the debt burden, "throughout the 1990s, Pakistan did not have the fiscal space to carry out any developmental work," says Dr. [Kaiser] Bengali, [an independent economic analyst in Karachi].
On Friday, Reuters reported that an attempt was made to shoot down Musharraf's plane as it flew over the town of Rawalpindi, where Pakistan's Army is headquartered, citing an unnamed intelligence official. A Reuters photographer said he saw an antiaircraft gun mounted on the roof of a house near the city's airport.
Aaron Mannes, an author who specializes in writing about terrorism, says on the Counterterrorism Blog that the attempt on the president's life and the Mosque siege highlight the weakness of US policy and the problems inside Pakistan that he argues are fueling militancy there.
The Red Mosque siege indicates that the government does not even control its own capital city. That a large campus – with over a thousand residents – is incubating radical Islamists minutes from the Supreme Court is nerve-wracking (particularly in light of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.)
This has led the United States and other nations to view Musharraf as the indispensable man, holding back the tide of radical Islam in Pakistan. Whatever Musharraf's virtues or faults, it is essential that policy look beyond him. The rise of radical Islam has, in great part been fueled by the economic and social stagnation of military rule. Parts of the military have also supported radical Islamist groups, both to counter civilian political parties and as proxies in fighting India in Kashmir and extending Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.