Bullets are flying, casualties mounting, but whose heads will roll?
The siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad raged on yesterday as government forces battled heavily armed militants who holed up there with dozens of hostages. Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the radical cleric who led the extremists, was killed.
But in spite of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's widely welcomed move to end a wave of violence by Islamic extremists, his future, and the country's, is balanced on a knife edge.
"This goes to the heart of Pakistan's unresolved issues," says Kamran Bokhari, Toronto-based Middle East regional director for Strategic Forecasting Inc. "After 60 years people are confused and they don't know which way to go. Is Pakistan supposed to be a religious or a secular state?"
Musharraf, an avowed secularist, has scored points with the West by joining the "war on terror" against Islamic militants, and positioning himself as a bulwark against extremism in the region.
But he has also been accused of using the Islamists to create an enemy that justifies his role as a military strongman. And with an election in the offing, he faces an increasingly determined political opposition, prompting rumours that he will declare a state of emergency and cancel the poll.
"Dictatorship, in my view, fuels extremism rather than contains it, and nothing proves that more than the emergence of the Red Mosque complex in the last five years in Islamabad," former prime minister Benazir Bhutto said yesterday in London.
And she told Britain's Sky News Television, if Musharraf "rigged elections" to stay in power another five years, "we could really be facing the spectre of an Islamist takeover of Pakistan."
Although Bhutto and many ordinary Pakistanis backed the mosque siege, Musharraf fears that opinion could turn sharply against him with an onslaught of media images of dead and wounded people. Hospitals treating casualties have been barred to journalists, amid rumours that those who tried to enter would be shot.
Yet the militants who turned the Red Mosque into their headquarters have struck fear into the capital for six months, and emotions ran high against them.
Enforcing their version of strict sharia law with Taliban-like "morality squads," they threatened music stores and even police, while women accused of running brothels were kidnapped.
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"Musharraf should have moved against them six months ago," says Karamatullah Ghori, a Toronto-based commentator and retired Pakistani diplomat.
"Women of the madrassa (religious school) took over a children's library right in the heart of the capital, and there was no challenge from the government."
But while Musharraf wrestled with the odds on a bloodbath - and a wave of suicide bombings - if the mosque was stormed, powerful religious parties, clerics and Pakistan's supreme court called for restraint and negotiation.
The brief abduction of seven Chinese women accused of prostitution, meanwhile, angered China, a valuable economic ally. The women were released last month, but three Chinese workers were killed this week in Peshawar.
As the siege winds down, Musharraf faces embarrassing questions at home, including how a group of radical students and clerics managed to stockpile a huge arsenal and dig a tunnel under the mosque without notice. Religious parties may also take their supporters to the street to protest the siege, and violence could escalate.
"Everything depends on what happens in the next few days," says Bokhari.
"This wasn't the work of a few ragtag mullahs whose cousins happen to have a few AK-47s."
The unruly tribal areas of Pakistan's borders are home to many extremist sympathizers, says Hassan Abbas, a research fellow of Harvard University's Belfer Center and former police official who worked in the area. "Every day in those areas there are new attacks. If it continues it could take things to an entirely different level."
He pointed out Musharraf has yet to face the crisis brought about by his suspension of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Choudhry, a challenge to judicial independence. Blocking of rallies in support of the popular Choudhry threw the country into turmoil before the mosque siege.
"Musharraf is losing support, and anyone who stands for him at this hour will lose," says Abbas. "In the heat of summer people are angry and frustrated, and they blame him. I see no indication that his tough action will bring stability. It will be a miracle if he gets through it unscathed."
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