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Pakistani Forces Storm Red Mosque, Kill Cleric

July 10, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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SAIMA MOHSIN, ITV News Correspondent: The order to storm the Red Mosque followed the breakdown of talks between government officials and militant leaders. Gunfire and explosions could be heard across the city; clouds of smoke billowed from the direction of the mosque.

But the Pakistani army had imposed a cordon, keeping cameras and the media well away from the scene of the fighting. Outside that cordon, parents whose children are being held hostage by the militants wept as it became clear the weeklong standoff would end in bloodshed. Their fears were reinforced when the military called in a fleet of ambulances that had been waiting at local hospitals for the inevitable casualties.

This has been a delicate operation for the military, with women and children allegedly being used as human shields by the militants. And once inside, the soldiers have discovered a series of underground tunnels linking the madrassa to the mosque.

As yet more ambulances were called in, officials released the first casualty figures, saying at least 50 militants from the Islamic school had been killed.

MAJ. GEN. WAHEED ARSHAD, Pakistani Military Spokesman: The militants are taking positions in almost every room. They’re fighting from room to room. They have positions in the basement, on the stairs, on the verandas.

SAIMA MOHSIN: Even as he was speaking, the first wounded were being brought out, and with them, reports that the militant leader and a hard core of fighters were making a last stand in the basement of the madrassa. In the final push, that leader, a radical cleric, was killed. But analysts are warning that the military assault could lead to more violence in Pakistan.

Analysis on the conflict

Hassan Abbas
Harvard University
It was a last-stage attempt, but I think the government was ready to compromise. They offered him some sort of safe passage. They said Mullah Abdul Rashid Ghazi can stay in a guest house.

GWEN IFILL: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on today's violent end to the mosque siege, we turn to Samina Ahmed, the South Asia project director for the International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization. Based in Islamabad, Pakistan, she joins us tonight from Massachusetts.

And Hassan Abbas, a research fellow at Harvard University's Belfer Center, previously, he held various law enforcement posts in the Pakistan government and is also the author of the recent book, "Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism."

Welcome, guests, both of you.

Mr. Abbas, let me begin with you. This standoff has actually been underway for about seven days. Why did the government decide to bring it to this violent end today?

HASSAN ABBAS, Harvard University's Belfer Center: I think the government's hand was forced by this consistent pattern of provocative actions. And then there were negotiations. As soon as the negotiations collapsed, the government decided to take these militants head on.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think the negotiations -- I mean, the government had said for six days just unconditional surrender. That's what they were demanding. Then yesterday they went into negotiations. Was that a serious attempt? If so, why did it fail?

HASSAN ABBAS: It was a last-stage attempt, but I think the government was ready to compromise. They offered him some sort of safe passage. They said Mullah Abdul Rashid Ghazi can stay in a guest house.

MARGARET WARNER: The cleric, the radical cleric.

HASSAN ABBAS: The cleric who was managing the show. But he, at the final moments, demanded that he wanted a safe passage not only for himself, but also for some foreign militants. That is the point which, according to the government version...

MARGARET WARNER: Foreign militants?

HASSAN ABBAS: Foreign militants, probably Afghan or Arab militants. And that is the time when the government said, no, we cannot talk on this any further. But there is a different version of the clerics who were acting as mediators. They say that all the modalities were finalized. It was kind of a compromised settlement, and then everything was finalized on all sides. The draft proposal was taken to Musharraf, and he amended it at the final moments. And that's when the negotiations collapsed.

Understanding the Taliban influence

Samina Ahmed
International Crisis Group
Their aims were to impose what they thought was their version of the Sharia Islamic law in Pakistan. But beyond that, their aims were also regional. They believed in Mullah Omar-style Taliban government.

MARGARET WARNER: Samina Ahmed, tell us who this radical cleric, these leaders and these students really are? I mean, they've been described as pro-Taliban. What does that mean? What were their aims?

SAMINA AHMED, International Crisis Group: Their aims were to impose what they thought was their version of the Sharia Islamic law in Pakistan. But beyond that, their aims were also regional. They believed in Mullah Omar-style Taliban government. They actually supported Mullah Omar and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And this is exactly what they taught the young people who studied with in the madrassa, to follow the Taliban-style government and Taliban-style Islam.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, in Islamabad itself, for months they had been waging a kind of vigilante-style anti-vice campaign, is that right? And if so, why did the government tolerate that for so long?

SAMINA AHMED: That's exactly where the problem lies, since January, young students, women and men, have been conducting raids, occupying government offices, threatening citizens, kidnapping even policemen, and yet the government did nothing. Six months of this activity, and we see what happens now. It emboldened the militants' hand.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Abbas, back to you. What has been the public reaction, at least for the first six days of this standoff, when the Pakistan government and the military were taking a very tough line? And then do you have any early read or prediction on how the public will react to this rather bloody end to it?

HASSAN ABBAS: I think initially there was support among the people. They were saying that, though we may agree with some of the goals of this group of religious conservatives, but then they said that this is not the way to try to enforce their version through use of force, by kidnapping people, by going out, burning CDs of music, by threatening televisions not to telecast a certain show.

So there was a clear difference of opinion among a great majority of people saying that this is not the way. Media was also very critical of these militants. So, initially, there was support among the people.

But later on now that there are many casualties, I think public perception is changing. They're asking questions about the timing of this whole issue, why government avoided taking them on earlier on, and now, at this critical moment, when Musharraf is facing stiff resistance from opposition parties, when there is movement for the supreme issue of constitutions, what we call the independence of judiciary relating to the chief justice crisis, when all those issues were taking place in Pakistan, people are saying Musharraf wanted to divert the attention of people from those issues, and also he wanted to polish his image in the international market.

So there's now growing skepticism that the government wanted to save women and children who were held hostage. But when the final toll has come out, there are about 100 people who are dead.

Two separate issues

Samina Ahmed
International Crisis Group
Musharraf needs the support of the Islamist parties in election year. His opposition is moderate. And I think the hesitancy in taking action for six months was partly due to this political compulsion.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Ahmed, what is your perception of whether, in fact, some of this criticism might be true, that the Pakistan government of government Musharraf decided that this was a politically advantageous and necessary time to finally confront this group?

SAMINA AHMED: There are two separate issues here. One is a pro-democracy movement led by moderate political parties, supported by the vast majority of the Pakistani population, all elements of civil society, including the media.

The standoff with the Lal Masjid, the radical madrassa and mosque, there, I think, the government had other compulsions, as well. Musharraf needs the support of the Islamist parties in election year. His opposition is moderate. And I think the hesitancy in taking action for six months was partly due to this political compulsion, not necessarily because Musharraf is trying to use this crisis and this bloody end to gain credibility in the international community. That's the end result, for sure.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do you think this will do for him or to him politically at home? Will this strengthen or weaken him?

SAMINA AHMED: It will undermine his legitimacy and his credibility. After all, this is what Musharraf has said all these years, that he alone can contain and eliminate militancy and extremism. And yet in the heart of the federal capital, you see a jihadi madrassa, with militants swarming the place, and the government does nothing for six months. This hasn't helped his image at all.

The American point of view

Hassan Abbas
Harvard University
Washington will be quite satisfied with what Musharraf has done, but there is an increasing pressure on Musharraf from all sides. This is the worst of times for him, criticism, skepticism from all sides.

MARGARET WARNER: Hassan Abbas, of course, from the American point of view, what the Bush administration cares most about Pakistan is as a bulwark against Islamic extremists. What does this entire incident and the way it ended say about both the strength and the will of the Musharraf government to confront radicalism?

HASSAN ABBAS: I think, first of all, Washington will be quite satisfied with what Musharraf has done, but there is an increasing pressure on Musharraf from all sides. This is the worst of times for him, criticism, skepticism from all sides.

And this was not the most appropriate time from Musharraf's perspective. As Samina said, elections are expected in a few months. This is a very tense moment for Musharraf for his support within the military, within the intelligence services, and most importantly among the people. I think this crisis has created much more problems for Musharraf. And his stars were, I believe, already fading; now his very survival is at stake.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Hassan Abbas and Samina Ahmed, thank you both.