By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 12, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 11 -- About 36 hours after they stormed the Red Mosque in a blaze of gunfire, Pakistani security forces on Wednesday killed the last remaining radicals and took on the grim task of recovering the casualties of a fierce, close-combat battle that left more than 80 people dead.
The raid drew the condemnation of al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who used a video statement to call for jihad in Pakistan. But officials here hailed the operation as a success, saying they were able to kill all of the fighters inside the mosque -- a group that allegedly included foreign terrorists -- without a heavy civilian toll.
"The number of casualties was much lower than it could have been," said Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz.
The operation still had a high cost: Of the 164 elite army commandos who laid siege to the mosque July 3 and stormed it a week later, 10 died and 33 were wounded, according to a military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad.
Officials indicated that most, if not all, of the 73 bodies recovered within the mosque Wednesday were those of radicals, not civilians. They would not provide a breakdown of who was killed, saying an investigation was ongoing.
The deaths of the last holdouts at the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, brought to an end a remarkably bloody nine days for Islamabad, a normally tranquil city that until recently had been immune from the extremist violence creeping through more remote areas in Pakistan.
Brothers Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi had been using the Red Mosque pulpit in recent months to push their dream of a Pakistani theocracy. Preaching revolution, they dispatched female religious students in black burqas to kidnap alleged prostitutes, and stick-wielding male students to harass music store owners.
President Pervez Musharraf struggled with how to confront the brothers and their followers, and the issue became a stand-in for Musharraf's broader difficulties with religious extremism, a problem that has grown under his watch. Critics say he has encouraged extremism by sidelining mainstream politicians and using radicals as a tool for raking in U.S. military aid.
Musharraf's supporters countered Wednesday that the Red Mosque crackdown showed that the president, a former commando who also heads the army, is willing to take a strong stand, even if it means losing troops and incurring the wrath of religious hard-liners.
In the end, Ghazi died in a hail of gunfire, officials said, after Aziz had been arrested as he tried to flee the mosque in a burqa. A senior official said the government was encouraged by that outcome and may be emboldened to go after other prominent extremists.
"The government is going to pursue this as far as possible," said the official, who was not authorized to speak for the record. "We recognize it's a menace."
It was still not clear Wednesday how Pakistanis would react to the raid. There was a small demonstration in the western city of Peshawar, but otherwise public reaction was muted. Still, hard-line religious leaders condemned the operation, and radicals vowed to get revenge.
Zawahiri, who is believed to be hiding on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan, released a four-minute video Wednesday in which he condemned "the criminal aggression carried out by Musharraf, his army and his security organs -- the Crusaders' hunting dogs -- against Lal Masjid in Islamabad," according to the IntelCenter, a group that monitors terrorist tapes.
The tape, which was considered an unusually quick response by Zawahiri, called on the Pakistani people to carry out jihad against Musharraf.
Even as the commandos continued to battle, the government fought a war over perceptions. It kept journalists away from the mosque and from hospitals to prevent them from capturing images of the carnage. It also took pains to present Ghazi as the one who had broken off last-minute negotiations, which apparently stalled over the fate of foreign fighters. Officials said that Uzbek, Chechen, Tajik and Afghan fighters had been among those killed, and that some were believed to be wanted terrorists.
Prime Minister Aziz, speaking at an afternoon news conference, said more than 1,300 people had fled the mosque before the raid began. Once it started, he said, there were apparently few women and children left. Three children and 27 women came out alive during the operation, far fewer than had been estimated to be remaining inside as potential hostages.
Aziz said he did not know of any women or children who had been killed in the operation, and credited commandos with ensuring civilian safety by moving methodically through the compound.
But Aziz conceded that the government had underestimated how difficult it would be to oust the radicals. Government officials had said a raid would take an hour or less; in fact, it took a day and a half, with bursts of gunfire still echoing from the mosque as late as Wednesday afternoon. Fighters inside used machine guns, rocket launchers and booby traps as they fought through a warren of bunkers and tunnels.
"The resistance that the law enforcement agencies faced was much more than what anyone expected," Aziz said. "These people were trained, hard-core fighters who knew very clearly what they were doing."
Special correspondents Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad and Imtiaz Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.