Rising violence tests Musharraf

Pakistan's president may strengthen his grip by exploiting recent attacks in Islamabad and the tribal areas, but the opposition wants elections.

In the week since the siege at the Red Mosque left at least 100 religious students dead in Pakistan's capital, a series of violent attacks appears to have emboldened the militant and political opposition to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

The latest guerrilla assault on a Pakistani military convoy, which left at least 17 soldiers dead in North Waziristan Wednesday, follows a string of daily attacks on Pakistan's security forces in the restive northwestern tribal regions. The spike in antigovernment violence in northwestern Pakistan follows the breakdown of a peace agreement between the government and local Taliban leaders in the tribal areas, which had been in effect since September 2006.

While it's not clear whether the sources are the same, the rising violence in Pakistan's hinterlands reached Islamabad on Tuesday night, when a suicide bomber killed 17 people in a central Islamabad marketplace.

Pakistan's suspended Supreme Court Chief Justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, was scheduled to speak there to a crowd of some 10,000 lawyers and political activists who had gathered in opposition to the military rule of Mr. Musharraf.

The bombing left 17 dead and dozens wounded, and the city, which was just recovering from the carnage of the Red Mosque siege last week, in tragic shock.

"Whoever the planners are behind this, their aim was to create turmoil in Pakistan," says Rasul Baksh Rais, a political analyst at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

Mr. Rais suspects the bombing was sponsored by Al Qaeda and aimed at pushing Pakistan toward anarchy of the kind that "prevails in Iraq or Afghanistan," at a time when the Pakistani economy is booming and the country has massive potential to move forward.

Musharraf's spokesman says the president has ruled out the option of declaring a state of emergency.

But analysts say the coming weeks will mark a critical juncture for the embattled president: Musharraf must decide whether to exploit the escalating violence to consolidate his hold on power or bow to opposition forces who would like to see fair elections and a return to democracy.

A declaration of emergency would suspend the Constitution and delay the general elections scheduled for the fall. While the date of the election has not yet been set, Musharraf may still postpone the vote if the wave of violence in the northwest of the country continues to swell, or if the political opposition decides to resign en masse from the parliament.

"An emergency would be very difficult to sustain," says Rais, because it would push legislative elections back beyond September when the President is up for reelection. "This will be unacceptable to the opposition political parties," he says.

Opposition leaders say that it would be against the spirit of democracy were Musharraf to extend his tenure for another term from the same assembly that has always bent to his wishes.

Alternative to a state of emergency

The alternative, some analysts say, has not been explored. Opposition leaders have proposed holding an all-parties' conference to forge a grand political strategy before the scheduled election. But Musharraf is believed to be far too insecure right now – concerned with maintaining his dual role as chief of the Army and president – to sit down at a table with all his opposition.

"Everyone needs to have a stake in maintaining stability, otherwise we can not face this challenge," says Rais.

Lawyers and opposition leaders, who were leading rallies across the country Wednesday, have switched to high gear, demanding that the president, who they say has lost his grip on law and order in the country, should resign.

Yet other experts say that while holding free and fair elections may still be unable to quell the violence that is spreading from the mountains in the northwest to the plains, they would give all political elements at the top an opportunity to engage the government.

Years of military rule since Musharraf seized power in 1999 have left pervasive corruption throughout Pakistan's government.

"At the root of our problem is serious institutional decay," says Aimal Khan, a political analyst at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad.

"People usually think of anarchy spreading from the bottom to the top. In our country anarchy is racing top to bottom," he says.

'Your enemy's enemy'

Until Tuesday, the chief justice's immense following, which numbers in the thousands, had traveled the length of the country in the past month without violent incident.

In the hours before the bombing, the rally hardly seemed the arena for bloody conflict. Before the rally, pro-democracy anthems blared from the public sound system. Hundreds of supporters swayed and balloons added a festive atmosphere, despite the metal detectors placed at the entrance of the outdoor compound where the chief justice was scheduled to speak.

The suicide bomber attacked as the bulk of the chief justice's supporters were still several miles away, inching their way to the rally.

To avoid the perception of interfering with an opposition rally, the government decided not to seal off the area after the bombing and allowed the chief justice to arrive at the venue and continue with the rally amid a full-blown crime scene.

Many analysts say they suspect that Islamist militants from the tribal regions would not have attacked an anti-Musharraf rally.

"You don't attack your enemy's enemy," says Mr. Khan.

The suicide bomber attacked an area close to a display for the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) – a placement that led many in the Pakistani media to surmise that the PPP was the attack's true target.

The PPP, which is led by exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is the only mainstream Pakistani political party to have sided with Musharraf throughout the Red Mosque crisis.

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