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Confrontation at an Islamabad Mosque

Religious students stand outside the mosque, the city's oldest. The government recently massed riot police nearby but did not raid the site. A government minister said he did not rule out such an option. (By Anjum Naveed -- Associated Press)

The controversy comes at a particularly sensitive time for Musharraf. Since suspending the nation's chief justice on March 9, the president has faced persistent calls for his resignation from pro-democracy activists who consider his tactics autocratic. Those activists also accuse Musharraf of fomenting extremism in Pakistan by sidelining mainstream political leaders and, through strategic partnerships, elevating the status of groups that had previously been on the fringe.

Musharraf, a general, has led the country since 1999, when he seized power in a bloodless, military-led coup. Over that time, and especially in the past few years, radical groups have gained greater acceptance for their views and have stepped up attacks -- in part because the anti-American insurgency in Afghanistan has spilled over the border.

But Musharraf's critics say the former army commando is also to blame because he plays both sides in the fight against terrorism: He allows radical groups enough room to operate and, in the process, guarantees a continuous flow of U.S. military aid.

"If extremism in Pakistan has a mother, it is military rule," said Ayaz Amir, a leading Pakistani political analyst.

Musharraf espouses a vision of what he calls "enlightened moderation" and has said he is trying his best to eliminate radicalism. Radical groups, for their part, have tried to eliminate him. He has been the target of several roadside bombings and suicide attacks.

"This government is only trying to please America and the Bush administration, with the result that the hatred for the government and hatred for America is increasing in Pakistan," said Ghazi, the Red Mosque cleric.

Ghazi, a beefy man with a bushy black and white beard, spoke at length about his grievances in fluent English with a visitor to the mosque on Monday afternoon. Neither he nor the dozens of other employees and students who were present appeared particularly concerned about a police assault, with several insisting they were prepared, come what may.

"We are not afraid of dying because death has to come. Why should we be afraid?" said Pervaiz Khan, 42, a mosque office assistant whose two daughters attend the madrassa.

As in the rest of Pakistan, the degree of extremism at the Red Mosque is a relatively recent phenomenon. The mosque is Islamabad's oldest, built and owned by the government as a place for public officials and other members of the nation's elite to worship.

For decades it was overseen by Ghazi's father, a cleric who was known for fiery oratory but who generally shunned violence.

In 1998, however, he was killed while walking outside his home. Ghazi and his brother, who took over at the mosque, became frustrated by the government's inability, or unwillingness, to track down the killer, said Misbah Saboohi, a family friend who grew up with the brothers.

"This is the real reason for their bitterness," said Saboohi, now a law professor at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. "They asked that a proper investigation be carried out, and nothing happened. That was the turning point."

The brothers soon began to distance themselves from the government, and established ties with the Taliban. In 2004, the government became suspicious that the brothers had links with al-Qaeda as well. It stopped paying their salaries, and prohibited them from leaving the mosque's grounds.

"They are hostages, too," Saboohi said.

Saboohi said she has tried to talk the brothers into giving up their fight with the government, to no avail. But she ultimately blames Musharraf for allowing extremist elements to thrive, even in Islamabad.

"This is a Frankenstein's monster that our military dictatorship has built," she said. "And now we are all suffering from it."

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