Successful siege at mosque gives Musharraf a win

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Praised even by archrivals for a successful operation against Islamic extremists in the Red Mosque this week, President Pervez Musharraf appeared yesterday to have snatched at least one quick victory away from those who predicted his political demise.

But without a major change in education strategy and an imposition of law in the country”s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, Pakistan is likely to remain a hornet’s nest of extremism for years to come, analysts and activists said.

For months, Gen. Musharraf has been losing popular support over his abrupt firing of the country’s chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who had expressed reservations about the president’s efforts to remain simultaneously in political power and in military uniform.

For nearly eight years since seizing power in a bloodless coup, Gen. Musharraf has held onto the presidency. His decision to side with the United States after the September 11 terrorist attacks had helped Pakistan win more than $10 billion in foreign aid, most of it for the military.

Some militant Muslim groups, including al Qaeda, criticized the operation.

Ayman al-Zawahri, al Qaeda’s deputy leader, released a 4½ minute video calling on Pakistanis to retaliate by waging “holy war” on Pakistan’s government, the Associated Press reported.

Gen. Musharraf earned lavish praise from residents in this tree-lined capital for his decision to root out Islamic militants holed up inside the mosque and an adjacent girls’ school.

Although the 164 special commandos took far longer than expected — more than 36 hours in total — to secure the compound, massive civilian casualties appeared yesterday to have been averted.

Pakistani military officials said 1,300 people had escaped or otherwise left the compound since the siege began July 3.

At least 106 persons were killed, including 10 soldiers, the Associated Press reported.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz told reporters late yesterday that no bodies of women or children had been found inside the sprawling mosque and school complexes and said the probability that such bodies would be found during the “mopping up” operation was low.

The week of urban warfare near the president’s home and the militants’ hard-fought battle from within a sacred enclave focused the country’s attention on the issue of religious extremism.

Commentators on the country’s 24-hour news channel, Dawn, posited theories on how to better tamp down extremism.

“I still don’t see the political will in this country, particularly from Musharraf, to change the policies that create these militants,” said Afrasiab Khattak, a leading human rights activist in the North-West Frontier Province, where Taliban fighters and al Qaeda are thought to have secured a major base for international terrorist operations.

“The government knows where these militants come from and it has used them for its own purposes in the past, but it hasn’t moved a centimeter … to limit them,” he said.

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