String of suicide bombings unsettles Pakistan

The latest, at a naval college in Lahore Tuesday, was the fourth in five days.

K.M. Chaudary/AP
Attack: Two suicide bombers in Lahore killed at least five people Tuesday at the gate of a naval college.

Four suicide bomb attacks in five days have added old fears and new confusion to the uncertainty surrounding Pakistan's historic Feb. 18 elections.

A governing coalition among the winning opposition parties has yet to form, and the future of President Pervez Musharraf remains unclear. Now, a fresh and intensified suicide-bombing campaign – at a time when the Army has reportedly entered into a secret cease-fire agreement with key militants – has left Pakistanis unsure who is attacking them and why, although many cite President Musharraf as a main reason for the trouble.

Analysts say the attacks could be retaliation for continued Army operations in certain parts of the country or a warning to politicians forming the new government.

With no one claiming responsibility or issuing demands, it is a matter of conjecture, which has created "a great deal of concern," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban." "It is a very weird situation."

The spate of suicide bombings comes after a lull: No suicide bombers struck during the election or in the immediate aftermath. And those that have taken place since have clearly targeted forces allied against terrorists.

On Feb. 25, a suicide bomber killed the military's top medical officer in the central Pakistani city of Rawalpindi, headquarters of the Army.

Last week, suicide bombers hit a military convoy and the funeral of a police officer – both in the tribal areas near Afghanistan – and on Sunday, another blew himself up among a council of tribal elders discussing how to tackle militancy.

Yesterday's blast continued the trend, killing six at the gates of a naval college in Lahore, the capital of the relatively safe Punjabi heartland, although there is no clear coordination.

Though the Army denies it, media reports indicate that it has declared a cease-fire with militants in the tribal agencies of North and South Waziristan, including with Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Yet the attacks continue.

Past cease-fires were controversial, "but they always did actually hold the peace," says Mr. Rashid. While it appears that the cease-fire is holding in North and South Waziristan, the recent attacks elsewhere "expose the fallacy of the cease-fire option," he adds.

Acts of retaliation?

Theories as to what is motivating the militants vary widely. Some note that the Army is still carrying out operations in other parts of the tribal belt beyond the Waziristans. There are reports of houses being leveled in the town of Darra Adamkhel as well as in the Swat Valley, which are both in Pakistan's militant-heavy northwest. Recent suicide attacks in these areas – at the tribal council and the police funeral, respectively – could be acts of retaliation.

Militants in these areas "say they have been attacked … and they want to take revenge," says Rahimullah Yousafzai, Peshawar bureau chief of The News, a Pakistani national newspaper.

A further reason could be to put pressure on the incoming Pakistan government. Though the Pakistan People's Party, which won the most seats in last month's election, has not yet succeeded in cementing a coalition, it will almost certainly be the leading partner in the next government – and it has taken the strongest stance against terrorism.

"They could be sending a signal that they have the power to strike anywhere, and that the government will have to talk to them on their own terms," says Mr. Yousafzai.

Yet he also suggests that the attacks might hint at cracks in Mr. Mehsud's rule of the Pakistani Taliban. "If Mehsud gives the order [for a cease-fire], not everyone is going to follow it," he says. "There's a lack of unity and a lack of command."

Many oppose attacks, blame Musharraf

What is clear is that the attacks are turning more Pakistanis against militants, whose actions were sometimes cast as freedom fighters against the United States in Afghanistan.

"It is leading to enormous public revulsion and a backlash against militants," says Rashid, the Taliban expert, who lives in Lahore.

On the streets of Lahore, however, Pakistanis are drawing their own conclusions from the bombings. Not surprisingly, it is the same message they tried to send in the election: Mr. Musharraf is the problem, and he needs to go to save the country.

"Our country has got a new government, but Musharraf is not leaving," says Mohammed Arif, a schoolteacher.

He notes that the top US military officer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, met with Musharraf in Pakistan on Tuesday. "Until the US stops its support for Musharraf, the Pakistani government will be helpless in maintaining the law and order situation."

The widespread perception is that Musharraf, like other military rulers before him, supported militants, both to have a proxy army and to keep the US engaged in the region.

Musharraf's government "has been nurturing such elements, and it is the nation that is paying the price," says Mohammed Zahid, a local resident, as he buys fruit at a street stand.

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