Violence Erupts at Pakistani Mosque

By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 4, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 4 -- A long-simmering standoff between the government and a radical mosque in the heart of the Pakistani capital exploded into a vicious street clash on Tuesday, with a dozen dead and more than 100 others injured.

For over 15 hours, paramilitary forces and bandanna-clad Islamic fighters manning positions in the Red Mosque traded automatic-weapons fire. At least three female students at a religious school affiliated with the mosque were killed, as were an army ranger and a Pakistani photographer who was caught in the crossfire.

At dawn Wednesday, the government was moving armored personnel carriers and special forces troops into position and warning of an all-out assault on the mosque. Power was shut down in the area, and security officials were demanding that pedestrians and vehicles stay out. Government officials said President Pervez Musharraf had signed off on the operation.

"Those who surrender will be forgiven," Zafar Iqbal Warraich, the minister of state for interior, said early Wednesday. "If someone comes out with a rifle, then we will answer a bullet with a bullet."

Later Wednesday morning, however, mediation was underway and it was unclear whether a raid would occur.

Tuesday's battle, which followed months of provocations by mosque leaders, dramatically displayed the rising threat of Islamic militancy in Pakistan and the struggles confronting Musharraf's besieged government. Tensions between the government and radical groups are not uncommon in Pakistan, but the clash at the mosque reflected their scope -- far beyond the deeply conservative tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan and into the orderly, tree-lined streets of Islamabad.

The mosque lies within walking distance of Musharraf's house, close enough for anyone home to hear the gunfire that reverberated through the city starting early Tuesday afternoon and continuing into the early morning Wednesday.

As the fighting raged, the troops -- holed up in nearby buildings -- fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of thousands that had gathered to show support for the Red Mosque's leadership. It was not known exactly how many people were inside the mosque compound, but mosque leaders had said there were at least 4,000 students in the religious school, or madrassa, alone.

They had also indicated that the students were willing to sacrifice their lives if the mosque, also known as the Lal Masjid, was attacked.

The mosque and its clerics have served for months as Islamabad's self-appointed vice squad. Its members have abducted police officers, kidnapped women and accused them of prostitution, threatened CD store owners with attacks and issued a fatwa, or religious edict, against a female cabinet minister who publicly hugged a man who was not her husband.

The government has threatened on several occasions to raid the mosque, but has pulled back each time. Musharraf, a U.S. ally on counterterrorism, has said that confronting religious extremism is among his top priorities. But critics charge that he has allowed it to flourish as he focuses instead on fending off attacks from moderate forces that want to restore civilian government to Pakistan eight years after a military-led coup brought Musharraf, the army chief of staff, to office.

"These are the fruits of military rule," said Ayaz Amir, a political analyst. "The main enemy of the government has not been what they call religious extremism. Musharraf's priority has been figuring out how to stick in power, how to keep his uniform and how to keep the secular opposition out in the cold."

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