Mosque Battle may signal end of `Mullah-Military' Alliance

( LatWp ) - In the fire-singed prayer hall of the Red Mosque on Thursday, pinpricks of sunlight filtered through hundreds of bullet holes in the corrugated tin roof while soldiers in combat boots stood at attention.

Just days ago, the mosque was a haven for radical Islamic fighters. By Thursday afternoon, it was a showpiece for the military's might. In between, Pakistan may have seen the most dramatic signal yet of a fissure between the two forces that have controlled this country for the past quarter century.

The alliance between the military and the religious establishment has long had a stranglehold on power here, with each side using the other to advance its own aims and cement its own influence. But the showdown at the Red Mosque, which lasted nine days and cost more than 100 lives before army commandos declared victory over extremist fighters, demonstrates that the so-called mullah-military alliance may be fast unraveling.

``By all measures this military action represents the most crucial blow yet to the mullah-military alliance in Pakistan,'' said Najam Sethi, a prominent political analyst. ``I wouldn't say that the Red Mosque action has broken the nexus between the madrassas and the military in Pakistan, but it has caused a major dent.''

Both sides now seem emboldened to step up the fight.

The government of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who also leads the army, was encouraged by its ability to oust the Red Mosque fighters with minimal civilian casualties and, so far, a relatively muted public response.

In an address to the nation Thursday night, Musharraf promised to devote more resources to combating extremism--particularly near the border with Afghanistan, a relatively lawless zone where the government has taken heavy criticism for fostering militancy.

``After this operation, terrorism and extremism has not ended in Pakistan,'' he said. ``But it is our resolve that we will eliminate extremism and terrorism wherever it exists.''

Meanwhile, the other side's rhetoric was equally severe.

``God willing, Pakistan will have an Islamic revolution soon. The blood of martyrs will bear fruit,'' Maulana Abdul Aziz, a former cleric at the Red Mosque, said at the funeral of his brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in the siege. ``Our struggle will continue. There are many Ghazis living to be martyred.''

Many in Pakistan, particularly moderates, question how willing or able Musharraf's military is to take on religious hard-liners. Extremists at the Red Mosque, located in the heart of Islamabad, were relatively easy and obvious targets compared with the dozens of shadowy groups that operate across miles of rugged, remote terrain in the country's west. Also, motivations remain in doubt.

The military and religious hard-liners have relied on each other since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. With extensive U.S. backing, the Pakistani military used the extremists to help beat back Soviet forces in Afghanistan, making Pakistan a key player in a crucial Cold War battleground. The militants also came in handy in battling Indian army forces in Kashmir.

In return, the hard-liners were given a strong influence in Pakistani society. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pakistani military officially dropped support for the Taliban government in Afghanistan and other extremist groups. Unofficially, most analysts believe that, at the very least, segments of the military have played a double game of taking U.S. counter-terrorism aid while allowing militancy to continue, especially in connection with Afghanistan.

But recently, the radicals have turned their attention back to Islamabad, carrying out attacks against Pakistani government targets. Instead of working with the military, radicals are increasingly fighting against it.

The Red Mosque embodies the transformation. It was once a favorite of the nation's establishment--including its military--and a prime location for recruiting fighters to join the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

But Ghazi and Aziz, who took over the mosque from their father in 1998, radicalized it and aligned it with anti-government groups. Their campaign this year to undermine Musharraf and establish a theocracy in Pakistan prompted the military crackdown.

Asked if the army had violated the mosque's sanctity, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad said the radical fighters had already done that by stockpiling a massive arsenal and using the compound to launch attacks against Pakistani security forces.

``This,'' Arshad said, ``is not a mosque.''

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