Pakistanis mourn military, civilian dead in mosque attack

Relatives surround a casket of retired army officer Mohammad Shoaib, a victim of the attack in Rawalpindi, before his funeral in Lahore.
Relatives surround a casket of retired army officer Mohammad Shoaib, a victim of the attack in Rawalpindi, before his funeral in Lahore. (K.m.chaudary/associated Press)
By Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hussain
Sunday, December 6, 2009

RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN -- Pine coffins were ceremonially placed on an army soccer field Saturday as Pakistan's prime minister, army chief and other officials gathered to mourn three victims of a suicide attack at a military mosque Friday that killed at least 40 people and injured 80.

Although Pakistanis have become somewhat numbed by a wave of terrorist bombings and other attacks in recent months, including a day-long siege of the army headquarters in the city last month, Friday's assault on two pillars of Pakistani society -- the army and the Islamic faith -- triggered an avalanche of public and official condemnation.

The attack, which killed army officers, wives and children, touched hundreds of families in the close-knit military community of this sprawling garrison city. Nasim Riaz, a retired general in his 70s, tried to find meaning in the death of his son Bilal, who had just returned home from studying in Britain and was to be married next week.

"I feel pride in his martyrdom. He died like a soldier to save his nephew," Riaz said, explaining that the two had been praying side by side. "These terrorists want to weaken the country and the resolve of the armed forces, but they will never succeed," vowed the distraught father, as visitors streamed through his modest brick bungalow to offer condolences.

The assault began after a small group of men slipped into the crowded mosque just before the weekly prayer service. Witnesses and officials said that one or two of the men blew themselves up, and that the others began hurling grenades and spraying the worshipers with gunfire, causing a stampede. Several of the assailants also fled but were eventually shot and killed.

The attack appeared to be part of an escalating urban terrorism campaign aimed at undermining an army operation against Taliban militants in the northwest tribal belt. It occurred just two days after President Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, which involves sending 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan and demanding more cooperation from Pakistan in wiping out safe havens for Islamist extremists.

Some analysts questioned the lax security in a sensitive military area that had been previously attacked. There was speculation that the assailants may have received help from inside the garrison, possibly from lower-ranking army personnel.

Army leaders, however, sought to convey a sense of newly strengthened determination to defeat extremist groups once fostered by the state to fight in India and Afghanistan -- even though the officials have reportedly expressed concerns that the conflict will intensify if a troop buildup next door sends a surge of Afghan Taliban fighters into Pakistan.

"Our faith, resolve and pride in our religion and our country is further reinforced by each terrorist incident," Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief, said in a statement. He thanked the public for its "overwhelming solidarity" and said the army is "committed to defend, protect and preserve the nation at all costs."

On the soccer field, officers wept and hugged after saying prayers at the mourning ceremony for a general and two sons of other active-duty officials. The general's coffin was draped in a Pakistani flag, and his officer's cap rested on top. A handful of civilians also were there.

"These extremists are not Muslims. They are butchers," said Asim Waris, 21, an engineering student and friend of one victim, a general's son. "We fought for America in Afghanistan, and now we are paying the price," he added, referring to the U.S. sponsorship of Pakistan-based Islamic militias in the 1980s. "We need to give these people proper educations, to turn them into human beings."

Some participants noted critically that President Asif Ali Zardari, who is commander in chief of the armed forces, did not attend. Zardari's relations with the military leadership have become tense, largely because he has sought close civilian ties with Washington and improved relations with India, Pakistan's longtime rival.

The assault also brought fresh signs of the conflict among Pakistani religious groups over where to place the blame for such attacks. Some have accused India and the United States of orchestrating the assaults as part of a wider campaign against Muslims, and responded to Friday's attack in that vein.

"This is the work of big powers. It is not a war against terror, it is a war against Islam, and America is leading it," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party. He warned that Pakistan's nuclear arsenal is not safe from U.S. clutches. "We must be careful because Obama said they can target any area of Pakistan," he said.

But a moderate Islamic scholar in the city of Lahore, responding to a demand by civilian officials that Muslim clerics speak out after the attack, announced that he planned to issue a fatwa, or Islamic edict, against terrorism.

"Suicide attacks are not allowed in Islam," the scholar, Tahir ul-Qadri, declared via videoconference. "These actions are un-Islamic. . . . The slaughter of human beings in any religion or country, and terrorism in all its manifestations, are totally in contradiction with the teachings of Islam."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company