Battle of nerves

Print edition : July 27, 2007

Paramilitary troops outside the battle-scarred Lal Masjid in Islamabad on July 12, a day after the storming of the mosque.-MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS

The eight-day standoff at and the final crackdown on the Lal Masjid highlight the dangers facing Pakistani society.

ONE by one, hands held high above their heads and shirts removed and clutched in one hand so that security officials could see that no explosives were strapped to their torsos, the boys threaded their way through an elaborate 200-metre security walkway of concertina wire, oil drums and metal detectors. More than 800 boys of Islamabad's Lal Masjid were fortunate to have made the decision to give themselves up in this way to the security forces that ringed the mosque and the adjoining Jamia Hafsa women's madrassa.

So were the 400 women in the madrassa who came out over two days, escorted by their fathers, mothers or other relatives through the same walkway, clothed head-to-toe in their black veils with just a narrow slit for the eyes.

Days later, after giving several ultimatums to those who remained inside to give themselves up, including one from President Pervez Musharraf to "surrender or be killed", commandos of the Pakistan Army's Special Services Group, backed by several thousand soldiers and the paramilitary Rangers, would storm the Lal Masjid-Jamia Hafsa compound and seize control of it.

Mourners touch the body of radical cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in the siege, during his funeral at Basti Abdullah village.-KHALID TANVEER/AP

Almost everyone holed up inside was killed, including Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the militant cleric and al Qaeda sympathiser who led Lal Masjid's six-month-long confrontation with the Pakistan government. (The military said it could confirm 50 deaths, but suggested the figure would rise.)

Ghazi managed to stretch out his last stand over eight long, agonising days for Pakistan, killing at least 12 security personnel, including two Army officers and two Rangers, in a showdown that began on July 3 when his militant students decided to challenge the paramilitary personnel who had already surrounded the complex but not yet blockaded it.

On that day, scores of stick-wielding women and firearms-toting men poured out of the complex and, shouting pro-jehad slogans, marched straight on to a picket and tried to snatch weapons from the Rangers manning it. A shot was fired - each side blamed the other for this - and the stage was set for the Lal Masjid denouement. Had the government acted against the Lal Masjid in January, when Ghazi and his elder brother Abdul Aziz set themselves up as the saviours of Islam in Pakistan, their unravelling could have been achieved without this much violence, perhaps without any violence at all.

July 4: Radical Muslim women students surrender near Lal Masjid.-MIAN KHURSHEED/REUTERS

Back then it was nothing more than what administrators describe as a "law and order problem". It began when Islamabad's Capital Development Authority demolished the first of 80 mosques and madrassas illegally built on public land. The Jamia Hafsa was on the list, and its students protested the demolition by seizing a public library sandwiched between the madrassa and the Lal Masjid.

Dressed in their trademark veils and holding sticks, the girls gave rise to a new and dramatically photogenic image of militant Islam as they sat in at the library. At the time, Umme Hassan, the principal of Jamia Hafsa and the wife of Ghazi, told this correspondent that the protest by her students was "unprecedented" in the history of Islam. The students were far from shy. One of them, Amna Adeem, a fourth-year student at the seminary who was leading the "students action committee", said she and her fellow students were "soldiers" of Islam. "We will not stir out of this place unless our demands are met. First, the government has to withdraw all demolition notices and rebuild the mosques that it has demolished in exactly the same place in exactly the same way. Secondly, bring in Islamic rule in Pakistan," she said.

Ghazi, who headed the Hafsa, and Abdul Aziz did not hide the fact that they were the real leaders of the protest. As the library seizure went on, boys from the Jamia Fareedia, a men's seminary situated 5 km from the Lal Masjid and headed by Aziz, began gathering in and around the complex in large numbers for "its protection". Several of them flaunted automatic weapons.

July 5: Unidentified students being taken away by paramilitary and police officers.-REUTERS

When this correspondent asked Umme Hassan what armed men were doing in a girls' seminary, she replied they were required for the safety of the students. "We have licences for those Kalashnikovs," she said.

Rather than have the library cleared, the government began negotiating with Abdul Rashid Ghazi. This was the beginning of the slippery slope that turned the mosque into a state within a state and led to the violent showdown six months later.

The government offered to rebuild one of the two mosques that had been demolished. Religious Affairs Minister Eijaz ul-Haq even laid the first bricks for the reconstruction in February. But the emboldened clerics rejected the offer and called for the implementation of the Sharia.

Abdul Aziz, who was the prayer leader of the mosque, claimed he had dreams in which he was asked to go forth and enforce the Sharia. Every Friday, from the minarets of the mosque, he would hysterically threaten suicide bombings if the government failed to implement Islamic law. His English-speaking brother would hold press conferences. In between, under the guidance of the brothers, the Hafsa-Fareedia brigade would carry out vigilante "anti-vice" raids in Islamabad, targeting "brothel runners", bootleggers and video shop owners.

Musharraf's frequent declaration that "no one can challenge the writ of the state" became a bit of a joke when he seemed unable, or unwilling, to enforce it in the heart of the capital. It belied his claim to be a champion of enlightened moderation and his professed commitment to wipe out extremism.

President Pervez Musharraf talking to an injured Army commando at a hospital in Rawalpindi.-AFP/INTER-SERVICES PUBLIC RELATIONS/HANDOUT

Located in the Aabpara area of Islamabad, a few kilometres from the President's office and the high-security diplomatic enclave, Lal Masjid was a centre for Deobandis in Pakistan that provided fodder for the jehad factories in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets, and in Kashmir. Its links with the intelligence agencies was public knowledge. It was also known for its virulent anti-Shia campaign.

The brothers inherited the mosque from their father, who was shot dead in the compound in 1998 in sectarian score-settling. They made no secret of their al Qaeda-Taliban sympathies. Four years ago, Ghazi passed a fatwa for a boycott of funeral prayers for Pakistani soldiers killed in battle with militants in Waziristan. In 2004, months after the assassination attempts on Musharraf, he was caught with rocket-launchers in the boot of his car. But the Religious Affairs Minister recently revealed that he had intervened to let him off.

The government's accommodation of Lal Masjid's open show of religious extremism was never more apparent than when the Sharia court set up by Ghazi passed a fatwa against Nilofer Bakhtiar, the former Minister for Tourism, because she hugged a parachuting instructor. The Minister had to resign, first from her party post and later from the Cabinet. Women began feeling insecure and afraid to venture out by themselves in what is otherwise quite a safe city. Newspapers called it the "creeping Talibanisation" of Islamabad.

Musharraf said he preferred to resolve the issue "amicably", deputing the ruling party president, Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, to negotiate with the clerics. The Opposition voiced doubts that the government, or a section of the "establishment", namely, elements in the intelligence agencies, were keeping the issue simmering to divert attention from the agitation in support of ousted Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary. There was also the suspicion that Musharraf, under pressure to give up his post as Army chief before standing for re-election, wanted to impress upon his Western backers that he needed to stay on, in uniform, to deal with extremists. For his part, the President said action against Lal Masjid could lead to several casualties, and warned of a backlash. Another time he said the mosque was filled with suicide-bombers and cadre of the Jaish-e-Mohammed. At one point, he said he was ready to carry out an operation if the media were prepared not to show bodies of the dead on television.

The turning point in the Lal Masjid saga may never have come had its vigilante shock troops not raided a Chinese massage parlour in a posh Islamabad neighbourhood and kidnapped seven Chinese nationals, six of them women.

For Pakistan, it was a deeply embarrassing incident, a black spot on its "all-weather friendship" with China. Top guns in the government negotiated the release of the Chinese nationals, but Abdul Rashid Ghazi said he was doing it for the "sake of Pak-China" friendship.

In Multan, religious students protest against the Army operation.-KHALID TANVEER/AP

Ghazi even invited the Chinese Ambassador Lou Zhiahou to visit Lal Masjid and see for himself the "good" that the mosque was doing for Islam. But Beijing was not amused and made its displeasure public during the visit of Pakistan's Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao. It is not clear if China demanded action for the kidnappings, but days later the Rangers, Pakistan's elite paramilitary, surrounded the mosque.

Even so, it is not known if they were finally preparing for an operation. But the decision was taken out of the government's hands when the students decided to preempt a possible raid.

After the first day of free-style chaos, when mosque students used firearms, petrol bombs and stones against the Rangers, and burnt down a government building opposite the mosque, the government had to re-establish control. The security forces threw a cordon around Aabpara, declaring a curfew in G-6, the residential sector that fell within the cordon.

In the early days of the standoff, the government's strategy was a maximum display of firepower but a minimum use of it. Security forces made repeated announcements, asking those inside the mosque to give themselves up, offering safe passage to those who were innocent of any wrong-doing, and throwing in the incentive of Rs.5,000. The strategy brought out 1,200 students, men and women, over two days. And it also helped the government win a psychological victory. Abdul Aziz Ghazi, against whom the government had just then registered several cases, including that of terrorism and murder, decided to take the offer, but under a veil, clutching a purse in his gloved hands for good measure.

"Aunty" Aziz's dramatic capture by security officials who grew suspicious of the height and girth of the figure under the burqa, and the comical and absurd figure he cut before television cameras was a setback to his brother and the others still holed up inside. But the week ahead would see a long-drawn-out battle of nerves.

Even the girls who gave themselves up remained defiant. "Don't think I am leaving because I am scared. I came out because my parents are worried. I hope to persuade them and go back to the mosque so I can fight for its protection," said one, identifying herself only as Amna of Rawalpindi. Visible through the slit of her niqab, her eyes were red and teary. "All the girls here," she said pointing to a clutch of black-robed women around her, "we did not want to abandon the Hafsa, and we have come out against our will."

They were in denial about Abdul Aziz's `burquepade', refusing to accept that he was trying to flee.

"He was not escaping," said one girl angrily, as she sat with her parents in a van taking them home. "You teargassed us so badly, he had to see a doctor," she said, refusing to give her name. "Give me any name, we are all the same. Write anything you want. It's no use talking to you people. Those inside are fully prepared for the defence of the mosque. We are going to win this," she said.

Another girl, who also refused to give her name, said he was going to meet a high-ranking government official for negotiations by a previous arrangement and was thus tricked into coming out in a burqa. No one can tell if the mood inside was identical, but the surrenders slowed to a trickle and gun battles began with loud explosions indicating that weapons more powerful than guns were being used.

When it became clear that no more would come out, the government said it was now dealing with a "hostage situation" where a few "hardcore militants" were holding up those who wanted to leave. Some parents appeared to confirm that view. "My brother-in-law is an idiot, I told him not to send his daughter to this school," screamed Badshah Khan as he waited for his niece. "Now they are not letting her go, they have put a pistol to her, and will not allow her to leave," he said. She came out eventually.

Others said those who wanted to leave were scared of being shot. "I told my boy that even your maulvi has left you, trying to escape in a burqa, it's high time you came out. But he said he would be shot if he tried to leave, and the bullet could come from either direction," said Zafar Iqqbal about his son Nazakat Ali. As the standoff continued and the gun battles became fiercer, the anxiety of the parents grew. Several people cried loudly at each explosion that shuddered through the ground. The government still insisted it was using only minimum force aimed at blasting the walls of the mosque to make escape for those inside less difficult. Deputy Minister for Information and Broadcasting Muhammed Ali Durrani said Musharraf wanted to "minimise loss of lives" and give those inside a "window of opportunity" to give themselves up.

With media access to the mosque barred by the security forces, no one could tell how many people inside were being wounded or killed in the standoff. At one point, it seemed Ghazi might surrender, but he turned defiant within a few hours, vowing to fight until the end, giving rise to speculation that he may now be a hostage himself to the militants. It was then that Musharraf spoke for the first time during the crisis, indicating he was running out of patience. "They must surrender, or I am telling them here, and now, they will be killed," he said. However, he set no deadline, and pressure began building up from many quarters, including the electronic media, urging the government to hold back as hundreds of innocent lives might be lost in a strike. Among these voices were also those of hardline religious parties and scholars who suggested giving safe passage or amnesty to Ghazi and the militants.

On Day 7, the government decided to give negotiations another chance. In keeping with its new spirit of judicial activism, the Supreme Court, too, weighed in by taking suo motu notice of the Lal Masjid saga, directing the government to resolve the showdown through negotiations and avoid loss of life, even though it later said that constitutionally, it could not stay an operation. The government appointed a 13-member committee comprising Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, Eijaz ul Haq and a group of religious scholars to talk to Ghazi into allowing the women and children to leave, lay down arms and surrender.

The details are still mired in confusion. Broadly, the government was prepared to offer him house arrest but insisted on legal proceedings against him. Ghazi wanted to spend the house arrest with his family in his village Rojhan in southern Punjab. But according to Eijaz ul-Haq and Deputy Minister for Information and Broadcasting Tariq Azeem, the real breakdown point was his insistence that foreign militants be provided safe passage.

The negotiations continued for 11 hours, beginning on the evening of July 9 and continuing overnight into the early hours of the next day. Ghazi was non-committal throughout the negotiations, saying he would get back to the team. Finally, the delegation gave him 15 minutes to respond, and he did not call back. "I have never been so dejected as I am today," said Hussain, announcing the breakdown of the negotiations at 3-45 a.m. on July 10. "We have left it to Allah," he said. As he stepped back into his car, the shooting began.

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