SLAMABAD, Pakistan - Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a senior cleric at Lal Masjid - the Red mosque - has called openly for jihad against American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's met Osama bin Laden and says he agrees with the al Qaida leader's worldview.
He also says that many of the 10,000 Pakistani students enrolled in the fundamentalist religious schools known as madrassas affiliated with his mosque would give their lives to overthrow the U.S.-backed government of Pakistan and install Islamic rule.
"If (President Pervez) Musharraf continues to suppress us, we cannot guarantee that there will be a peaceful transition . . . you cannot say if a Taliban system, if a Khomeini system, will emerge," Ghazi said recently, reclining against a cushion on the floor of a small building on the mosque grounds as a group of men sat outside with AK-47 rifles.
Lal Masjid isn't hidden in a remote, lawless corner of Pakistan. It sits in the middle of the capital, a short drive from Musharraf's office.
It's a measure of Musharraf's troubles that Lal Masjid may be among the least of them. His nation seems on the edge of upheaval. Both liberal parties and hard-line mullahs are besieging him. Much of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is open to Taliban and al Qaida fighters. Musharraf's power base is a military with a long history of coups. He himself took power in a 1999 military coup that ousted the sitting prime minister.
The latest challenge may be the most serious, motivated by tens of thousands of backers of the chief justice of the supreme court, whom Musharraf suspended and tried to force to resign. Rallies organized by liberal and relatively secular groups have called for Musharraf to step down.
The outcome will have deep implications for U.S. standing in Pakistan, which is in an area awash with American interests. Pakistan's borders touch Iran, with which Washington is in a showdown over Iran's nuclear program; Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are embroiled in a counterinsurgency campaign; China, a rising great power; and India, one of the world's fastest growing economies.
The U.S. Defense Department identified Pakistan last year as "a key partner in the war on terror" and one of the largest recipients of U.S. security assistance, including AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters, various missile systems and a planned sale of F-16 fighter jets.
The White House and Defense Department have sent billions of dollars to the Musharraf government since Sept. 11, 2001.
While many U.S. officials mistrust Musharraf and voice disappointment in his failure to crush Taliban commanders and al Qaida terrorists who are using Pakistan's tribal areas as base camps, the Bush administration considers him a man America can work with.
That, in a nuclear-armed nation where bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar may be hiding, is no small matter.
Opposition politicians charge that the United States is selling out democratic principles in favor of a military strongman who'll back its strategic plans in the region. They contend that U.S. support of Musharraf is only creating more terrorists.
"People have begun to say that America has put this man (Musharraf) on our heads and there is nothing we can do but kill him and fight those who support him," said Saad Saleem, who runs one of the country's biggest broadband Internet companies and has helped organize anti-Musharraf street protests.
Musharraf began to lose his footing in March, when his suspension of the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, didn't go as smoothly as planned.
Lawyers began protesting against Musharraf in the streets. Chaudhry - a solemn-looking man with a heavy mustache who's given to painstaking oratories on the rule of law - went on tours across the country, accompanied by thousands of supporters on the roadsides who threw rose petals at his slow-moving caravan.
Many in Pakistan think that Musharraf tried to oust the judge to keep him from hearing cases challenging his standing as both the military and civilian head of state.
Then the court decided that it would hear Chaudhry's petition for reinstatement, a stunning turn in a nation where the judiciary traditionally has been in lockstep with military regimes.
Asked why Musharraf would think he could brush aside the head of the supreme court, Syeda Abida Hussain, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1993 and then a Cabinet member, waved her hand and laughed.
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The general, she said, is drunk on American power.
"Poor Pervez Musharraf ended up believing that like a Louis XIV, that he is 'le roi soleil,' " she said, rolling the French words for "sun king" with relish. "This poppa Nero . . . this mad Musharraf treads on all possible Pakistani toes because he feels that all he has to do is keep on the right side of Condi Rice and George Bush."
Hussain laughed again.
"It's the endgame for Musharraf," she said, her voice growing more serious, "whether the Americans want it or not."
The Americans are playing it cautiously. On a recent visit here, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte called for free and open elections. But they stopped short of asking that Musharraf step down as the military chief - saying it was up to him to decide - a position that would allow him to declare martial law before elections.
Some in Islamabad took that to be tantamount to endorsing Musharraf's continued reign as a military ruler.
Syed Kabir Ali Wasti, a vice president in Musharraf's political party, said Boucher and Negroponte came to assess the level of support that Musharraf had in the government.
"They are very much concerned that after the elections the government should be able to deliver, to be able to work with the armed forces in Pakistan," Wasti said. "There should be an understanding, we think, that if Musharraf takes off his uniform all the parties will support him; then he would win the elections and there will be no turmoil."
Interviews in a poor, ramshackle suburb of Islamabad suggested otherwise. While the bakers, day laborers and fruit vendors had different ideas about the government they wanted - from Islamic theocracy to quasi-socialism - most agreed that Musharraf had to go.
"If Musharraf doesn't go, the lesson will be 'might is right,' and there will be no calm," said Munnawar Ali, a welder whose clothes were streaked with black grime and dirt.
Zaiqur Rahman, a booking clerk at a bus station, had similar sentiments.
"Musharraf is against everyone," he said. "There will be a civil war if fair elections are not held; it would be between the people and the army."
The man next to him nodded and said, "Ji" - yes.
A world away from the dusty bus station market where Rahman works, Aitzaz Ahsan, the lead counsel in the case to have Justice Chaudhry reinstated, walked out of the supreme court building last week, surrounded by his fellow attorneys, a shuffling mass in their signature black suits, white shirts and black ties.
Ahsan said the movement behind Chaudhry was rooted in hopes for a liberal society that would support an independent judiciary and strong government institutions. Yet, he said, American officials appear to have thrown in their lot with a man who opposes them.
"Despite the fact that there is a massive, popular, nationwide upsurge favoring the chief justice, the United States continues to stand with General Musharraf," Ahsan said. "The Americans don't seem to notice it. They don't seem to notice that the wind is increasingly blowing against the Americans themselves."
U.S. officials, he said, seem to still think that "Musharraf is indispensable."
Ahsan paused a moment. "Graveyards," he said, quoting the late French leader Charles de Gaulle, "are full of indispensable people."
Copyright 2007 McClatchy Newspapers