Thursday, April 1, 2004

A series of suicide bombings and attacks on security forces that have rocked Uzbekistan this week has focused new attention on a secretive, anti-American Islamic fundamentalist party that aims to create a Muslim superstate based on strict Koranic law.

But the crackdown on Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami by the authoritarian government of President Islam Karimov also has raised fresh questions about whether the harsh treatment has boosted support for Islamist militants in Uzbekistan and across the strategic Central Asian region.

Uzbek Prosecutor General Rashid Kadyrov, speaking with reporters yesterday in the capital, Tashkent, for the first time raised the possibility that Hizb ut-Tahrir, which says it is nonviolent, had worked with al Qaeda in the attacks that have killed at least 44 persons since Sunday.

“The investigation does not rule out either the involvement of terrorists … in [Hizb ut-Tahrir] or a tie with international terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda,” Mr. Kadyrov told the Russian Itar-Tass news agency.

The violence continued yesterday when a woman detonated a bomb in an apartment building in the central Bukhara region, killing a bystander and critically injuring herself.

The party, whose name means the “party of Islamic liberation,” has been the target of harsh repression by Mr. Karimov, who provided crucial help for the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan.

Ariel Cohen, a Heritage Foundation researcher who has studied the party extensively, said Hizb ut-Tahrir’s radical agenda, Leninist party structure and open hostility toward the United States make it a clear threat to American interests. He said the fact that many of the attacks occurred in Hizb ut-Tahrir strongholds strongly suggested that the party at least knew of the strike plans.

“There has been a lot of underground incitement by party members against Karimov and the alliance with the U.S.,” he said. “And this is at a time when al Qaeda and other militant groups have proclaimed Uzbekistan will be a target.”

Others argue that Mr. Karimov’s policies are the real danger, suppressing legitimate opposition voices and leaving the field clear for more radical, anti-U.S. forces. Human rights groups accuse the Karimov regime of intense harassment of nonsanctioned religious and opposition groups, including arbitrary arrests and torture of dissidents.

“Everyone can agree Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a very nice group. They’re clearly anti-Western and clearly antidemocratic,” said David Lewis, Central Asia project director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group and author of a study of the party last year.

“But the heavy-handed repression we’ve been seeing across the region actually threatens to radicalize members still further and sow the seeds of further Islamist extremism.”

The party, which has branches in 40 countries in Asia, the Middle East and Western Europe, says it wants to establish a new caliphate stretching across the Islamic world and ruled by a strict, Koran-based interpretation of Islamic law. To Hizb ut-Tahrir members, even self-proclaimed Islamic-based states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran are too moderate and secular.

The Bush administration has offered to help Uzbek authorities investigating the rash of suicide bombings and violence in the worst unrest the country has seen in years. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said this week that U.S. officials have seen no evidence that Mr. Karimov has used the attacks as an excuse for more political repression.

“The United States and Uzbekistan have a program of close counterterrorism cooperation,” he said, “and it’s important that we continue that cooperation.”

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