By Nahal Toosi and Zarar Khan
Associated Press Writers / July 2, 2008
(see The Boston Globe)
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A year after the deadly military siege of the Red Mosque, the radical spirit of the pro-Taliban stronghold lives on.
The dead are hailed as martyrs. Militants — and politicians — use the Pakistani mosque standoff as a rallying cry. And conspiracy theories have found fertile ground as questions linger about how many people died and whether any were women or children.
The siege damaged President Pervez Musharraf’s reputation among many ordinary Pakistanis and spurred a string of militant attacks in the country. A year later, violence is down, but Musharraf’s power has also diminished as a government packed with his foes has taken charge.
“The Red Mosque left a very bad taste, actually,” political analyst Talat Masood said. “It adversely affected President Musharraf’s image. It also affected the image of the army. It failed to achieve either its military or its political objectives.”
The storming of the mosque, known as the “Lal Masjid,” came after its leaders and students led a months-long anti-vice campaign that included kidnapping alleged prostitutes. Mounting tension resulted in gunbattles with security forces.
An eight-day standoff between security forces and armed militants inside the compound — which included the girls’ seminary known as Jamia Hafsa — began July 3. The government said about 1,300 people fled unharmed.
Elite commandos went in after unsuccessful attempts to get the militants to surrender.
The stiff resistance suggested the presence of hardened fighters, though some say the militant arsenal displayed by the government after the raid — crates of petrol bombs, gas masks, rocket-propelled grenades, dozens of battered AK-47s — were imported as a propaganda ploy.
The government said 102 people died — including 11 security forces — and that none were women or children, though several bodies were charred beyond recognition. Mosque supporters say thousands were killed, hundreds of them women or children.
Ume Hassan, the still-defiant girls’ school principal, said she saw many girls get injured and others’ bodies on the ground amid the chaos. She said she didn’t have a casualty count partly because the schools’ records were lost or destroyed.
During the siege, Ume Hassan’s husband, Maulana Abdul Aziz, the mosque’s chief cleric, was captured trying to flee dressed in a burqa. He remains detained. His brother and deputy Abdul Rashid Ghazi was killed. Both men are heroes to the mosque’s supporters and many of them don Ghazi’s signature red prayer cap.
Many moderates supported the siege, though some said Musharraf waited too long to go after the mosque, located in the capital Islamabad, one of Pakistan’s most liberal cities. When he did and also deployed more troops to volatile border regions, it provoked an unprecedented wave of suicide attacks across Pakistan.
Jihadists, including al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri, have since used it as rallying cry to fight the U.S.-backed Pakistan government.
Just last week, a group of Taliban militants seized the building of an under-construction girls’ school in the Bajur tribal agency and named it after Jamia Hafsa.
And in undated footage obtained recently by The Associated Press, a 20-something fighter battling Pakistani security forces purportedly in Waziristan fires a long-range mortar and declares that they will avenge the siege “because there many of our sisters and innocent brothers were brutally murdered.”
Meanwhile, mosque supporters are working to re-establish its influence. Jamia Hafsa was razed to the ground, but Ume Hassan said some 20 branches of the girls’ school continue to operate, including one at her home. About five were established after the siege.
“It is our intention, and a matter of honor, that as long as we have life left in us, we carry on this work,” she said. “Only that person despairs who concerns himself with earthly rights. But we look upon our rights in heaven, so we don’t despair.”
Tariq Azim, who at the time of the siege was deputy information minister, said Pakistan faced enormous pressure to deal with the mosque and stop its anti-vice campaign.
“Now looking back, maybe things could have been done differently. Maybe more time could have been given,” he said. “But at that given time there was a lot of pressure. Even the press was saying action has to be taken. International opinion said ‘How can a government allow such a kind of thing to happen right in the center of the capital?'”
The siege has political resonance a year later.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a leader in the governing coalition who was deposed by Musharraf in a 1999 coup, uses the siege to foment outrage against Musharraf, a bitter foe he is determined to push out of office.
“The president must be held accountable for the killing of innocent children in the Jamia Hafsa and the Lal Masjid,” Sharif declared during a massive rally in June, local media reported.
Meanwhile, worshippers by the hundreds still gravitate to the mosque, which was repainted a benign beige after the siege.
One recent Friday, the congregation spilled onto the forecourt and many donated cash to rebuild the girls’ seminary. Some wandered on the wasteland where it once stood. A few sat there, weeping, as they stared at their palms in a gesture of prayer.
Mosque supporters plan a conference of religious scholars and politicians July 6 to discuss the siege. “The blood of the martyrs is crying out, and we all must recognize our responsibility,” posters for the event say.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington and Manal Ahmad contributed to this report