PESHAWAR, Pakistan Authorities last night filed sedition charges against the nation’s leading Muslim cleric, stepping up a crackdown on anti-government and anti-U.S. protests as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld flew in for a quick visit.
The charges against Qazi Hussain Ahmad, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, stemmed from a speech on Friday in which he urged the army to overthrow the government of President Pervez Musharraf, who took over the country in a 1999 military coup.
Mr. Ahmad was already under house arrest for a speech in the city of Mardan after Friday prayers. The government also banned 27 high-profile militants from entering a volatile border province.
Mr. Rumsfeld on the ground for just a few hours to shore up support for the U.S. campaign against Osama bin Laden said he understood the pressures on Gen. Musharraf’s government but that the United States had little choice but to continue fighting.
“The reality is that the threats of additional terrorist acts are there. They are credible. They are real, and they offer the prospects of still thousands of more people being killed,” he said.
Mr. Rumsfeld also accused the Taliban of hiding military stores and command centers in hospitals, schools and mosques, and said it was “actively lying about civilian casualties.”
“The Taliban [is] not really functioning as a government,” he said.
Militarily, the Afghan leaders are “using their power in enclaves throughout the country to impose their will on the Afghan people,” he added. But “they are not making major military moves. They are pretty much in static positions.”
Gen. Musharraf earlier had said his government would ask Mr. Rumsfeld to halt the bombing of Afghanistan during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in about two weeks.
But when Mr. Rumsfeld and Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar addressed a joint press conference after their meeting, it was clear that no deal had been struck. The Bush administration stated publicly on two occasions last week that it would not halt bombing during Ramadan.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s visit came at a time of growing militancy among fundamentalist Muslim groups, which had sent thousands of armed men to Afghanistan to fight U.S. forces.
On Friday, Mr. Ahmad told thousands of supporters: “The Army should get rid of Musharraf before the people throw him out.” He spent yesterday confined by police to his shaded house on the outskirts of Peshawar, where he toned down his message during an afternoon interview on his marbled veranda.
“The government should resign and hold elections for a new government,” Mr. Ahmad said. “The people are in continuous and constant agitation. There is no other way.”
He remained last night at his home, where he said by telephone that he would take the case to the “court of society.”
Anti-government demonstrations so far have been relatively small and restricted to a militant segment of Pakistani society. But they continue daily, and authorities over the weekend took some of their harshest steps yet to stifle the protests.
In addition to confining Mr. Ahmad, authorities issued a list of 27 high-profile militants, most of them clerics, who have been barred from visiting Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province for the next 30 days.
The move was seen as an attempt to limit unrest among Pashtuns, the same ethnic group as the Taliban and most of Afghanistan’s 20 million people.
In the capital Islamabad, a magistrate imposed a two-month ban on rallies, marches and public gatherings of five or more persons.
Last month, the government prevented Mr. Ahmad from traveling to Pakistan’s south for planned rallies. Other Islamist leaders also have been detained since September 11, but none has the following that Mr. Ahmad enjoys; he can draw crowds of up to 100,000.
The government also has arrested the leader of the nation’s leading secular party, the Pakistan Muslim League, on corruption charges an arrest that came hours after his party voted to join the Islamists in a nationwide strike on Friday.
Ramadan is a sensitive time because Muslims of all persuasions flock to mosques, where the Friday sermons are beyond government control.
Few see any immediate threat to Gen. Musharraf, who assumed office after a military coup in 1999. But he finds himself straddling a widening gap between his support for the U.S. military campaign and public opinion that is overwhelmingly opposed to the bombing of Afghanistan.
Gen. Musharraf frequently has called for a short and focused bombing campaign in the battle against bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist group, held responsible for the September 11 attacks on the United States. President Bush, on the other hand, has spoken of a campaign that could last for years.
Mr. Ahmad cautioned yesterday that the air campaign would achieve nothing. “America is in a bind. They’re just groping in the dark,” he said. “There is no alternative to the Taliban.”