Riot Erupts at Pakistan Mosque; Blast Kills 13 Nearby

Policemen help a colleague injured in a suicide bombing that killed 13 people at a market several hundred yards from Islamabad's Red Mosque.
Policemen help a colleague injured in a suicide bombing that killed 13 people at a market several hundred yards from Islamabad's Red Mosque. (By Anjum Naveed -- Associated Press)
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, July 28, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 27 -- Radical students on Friday again commandeered Islamabad's Red Mosque, a site that has become a symbol for the instability surging through this country. Hours later, a suicide bomber killed 13 people in a market down the street from the mosque.

The events underscored the broad forces challenging Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a crucial U.S. ally on counterterrorism. While he is trying to quell a growing insurgency from Islamic extremists, he is also attempting to fend off a vigorous campaign from moderates to end his eight-year rule in upcoming elections.

Seeking a political solution, Musharraf reportedly met abroad on Friday with his most influential rival, exiled former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

At the mosque, security forces retook control late Friday afternoon, but scenes of police firing tear gas and protesters calling for jihad opened fresh wounds in a city still reeling from the nine-day siege that claimed more than 100 lives this month. The bombing, meanwhile, added to a series of attacks that have terrorized the country in recent weeks.

"The security situation here is getting worse every day," said 22-year-old student Bilal Hassan as he surveyed the damage at the market. "You expect this in the remote areas, but not in our capital."

Reports of a meeting in the United Arab Emirates between Musharraf and Bhutto were officially rejected as false, though political sources said privately that negotiations on a power-sharing agreement were advancing. While there is mutual contempt between Musharraf and Bhutto, Musharraf badly needs allies, and Bhutto has stated her intent to return to Pakistan for a third term as prime minister. Since both are regarded as moderates, they could conceivably form a pact to battle rising militancy.

The Red Mosque has embodied Musharraf's problems with extremism. For much of the year, its pro-Taliban clerics waged a vigilante anti-vice campaign and promised an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. On July 10, commandos raided the compound, leaving a deputy cleric and dozens of armed followers dead.

The mosque was then closed while the government made extensive repairs and demolished an adjacent madrassa, or religious school. The government also repainted the building a soft yellow in a bid to erase memories of its bloody past.

The mosque is Islamabad's oldest. Just blocks from the president's house, it is a fixture in the heart of the normally sleepy capital. Its reopening Friday was supposed to signal a new era of calm, but instead sowed more chaos.

A government-appointed cleric was preparing to give his Friday sermon when a group of radical students blocked him and forced his exit. They then demanded the return of the mosque's former cleric, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was arrested July 4 while trying to flee the compound while wearing a burqa.

Hundreds soon gathered on the streets to cheer as young men climbed onto the mosque's roof, chanting extremist slogans. Armed with cans of paint, the men soon began to turn the building red and spray graffiti on its walls. "Revolution will come through the blood of the martyrs," read one crimson inscription. The men also hung the Red Mosque's old signature black flags from the building's minarets.

The protesters received support from at least one top political leader. "Maulana Abdul Aziz is still the prayer leader of the mosque," said Liaqat Baloch, deputy chief of a coalition of hard-line religious parties. "Musharraf is a killer of the constitution. He's a killer of male and female students. The entire world will see him hang."

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