Tuesday morning, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf made one of the most dramatic decisions of his six-year participation in the war on terror.
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."
For Musharraf, the positive reaction is an unusual bit of good news. Musharraf's attempts in March to throw the chief justice off the Supreme Court sparked daily nationwide protests against him and created the greatest threat to his rule since he seized power from a democratically elected government in 1999.
"Up until this happened, he looked to be on a slippery slope," says Dr. Kux, of the Woodrow Wilson Center. "This could be a big event."
The government has dropped hints that this could be just the beginning as it attempts to at last come to grips with terrorism blooming beyond the Afghan border. Last week, The New York Times cited an Interior Ministry report presented to Musharraf that stated: "There is a general policy of appeasement towards the Taliban, which has further emboldened them."
Critics say that Pakistan has long turned a blind eye to Islamist movements in the country, believing that it can only keep the West interested in the region – and money flowing in – if it appears unstable.
Some believe the assault on the Red Mosque shows a turnabout, with the government acknowledging that extremism has gotten out of hand. "There is a realization that monsters develop ideas of their own," says Najmuddin Shaikh, a former foreign secretary of Pakistan.
Others suggest that there could be more pragmatic motivations, like self-preservation. "It is to [Musharraf's] advantage to be viewed as taking a stand against extremism," says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at Rand Corp., a research group in Washington. "There may be a political intent in doing this."
Yet the need for continued action is pressing, say Dr. Jones and others. Since Muslim extremists were rousted from Afghanistan in 2001, Pakistan's border areas – once loosely governed by a patchwork of tribes – have become a breeding-ground for global terrorism.
"[Intelligence agencies] and the Army are not able to control militants in that area," says Jones. "It is no longer a tribal area; it is a religious extremist area."
There are signs that tribal leaders are trying to fight back. Last week, tribesmen living in restive North Waziristan revolted against a local Taliban commander, Maulana Alim Khan, and killed his six fighters when they tried to kidnap an Army officer. But for the moment, the momentum is in the opposite direction.
Indeed, news of the mosque raid prompted violent protests in such remote regions. Militants and students from madrassahs burned and looted the offices of the French Red Cross and Care International in one district of Northwest Frontier Province on Tuesday. Army and paramilitary troops had to be called to stabilize the situation.
In Peshawar, there are those with their doubts about the government's intentions, too. "Musharraf is doing all this to please the Americans," says Muhammad Arshad, a graduate from a religious seminary. "He is killing fellow Muslims to earn dollars."
But most seem to feel that the leaders of the mosque had refused reasonable negotiations and that the government's actions, though unfortunate, were necessary.
Says Nasima Jahan on her way to work: "When the talks failed, and the clerics showed no flexibility, there was no other option for the government but to act."