KARACHI - Pakistani authorities have compared Saturday evening's devastating truck suicide attack on the Marriott Hotel in the capital Islamabad to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
In terms of its psychological effect, the blast, which killed more than 80 people, injured hundreds and burnt out the hotel, has traumatized the nation, and, like 9/11, marks the beginning of a new battle: this time not the "war on terror", but the war by terrorists.
Pakistan is now the declared battleground in this struggle by Islamic militants to strike first against American interests before the United States' war machine completes its preparations to storm the sanctuaries of al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
The attack on one of the hotels in the chain of the US Marriott group was one of the worst in Pakistan's history and involved the sophisticated use of over 600 kilograms of TNT explosive blended with RDX and phosphorous, detonated when a truck rammed into a security barricade in front of the hotel
Among the dead were the Czech ambassador to Pakistan, two US Marines, members of the US embassy staff, Saudi nationals and other European diplomats. More than 250 people were injured and dozens of parked cars were destroyed.
There was immediate speculation the attack was prompted by the fact of many marines living in the top floor of the hotel. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani claimed the real target was his residence, where President Asif Ali Zardari, army chiefs of staff and the entire cabinet were gathered for an Iftar (Muslim breaking of the Ramadan fast) dinner. Security was so tight, the theory goes, that the driver instead went to the nearby Marriott.
But on Monday afternoon, Rehman Malik, the Pakistani prime minister's advisor for the interior, told a group of reporters at the Islamabad airport: "An Iftar Dinner was scheduled at Marriot on September which was hosted by National Assembly Speaker Dr Fahmida Mirza and where all dignitaries including the prime minister, president, cabinet and all services chiefs were invited. However, at the eleventh hour the dinner was shifted to rime minster's house which saved Pakistan's entired military and political leadership."
"Perhaps, the earlier information of the dinner was leaked to the militants and therefore they hit Marriot hotel,"Rehman added.
However, Asia Times Online's investigations, including talks with highly placed security experts, indicate that the Marriott attack signals the opening of a major battle which is about to start in Pakistan in a new phase of the "war on terror".
Preparations for a new battle
Saturday's blast occurred on the day of Zardari's first presidential address to a joint session of parliament, after which he was due to depart for New York for the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly.
He was also scheduled to meet leading US officials to discuss contentious issues in the "war on terror", especially the US's aggressive military incursions into Pakistan's tribal areas in recent weeks to attack al-Qaeda figures and militants.
Already, though, events had been set in motion to shape this new battlefield.
Approximately 20 kilometers from Islamabad lies Tarbella, the brigade headquarters of Pakistan's Special Operation Task Force (SOTF). Recently, 300 American officials landed at this facility, with the official designation as a "training advisory group", according to documents seen by Asia Times Online.
However, high-level contacts claim this is not as simple as a training program.
In the mid-1990s, during the government of Nawaz Sharif, a special US Central Intelligence Agency unit was based at the same facility, tasked with catching Osama bin Laden. They left after Pervez Musharraf came to power in a coup in 1999.
Now, the US has bought a huge plot of land at Tarbella, several square kilometers, according to sources directly handling the project. Recently, 20 large containers arrived at the facility. They were handled by the Americans, who did not allow any Pakistani officials to inspect them.
Given the size of the containers, it is believed they contain special arms and ammunition and even tanks and armored vehicles - and certainly have nothing to do with any training program.
There is little doubt in the minds of those familiar with the American activities at Tarbella that preparations are being made for an all-out offensive in North-West Frontier Province against sanctuaries belonging to the Taliban and al-Qaeda led by bin Laden. Pakistani security sources maintain more American troops will arrive in the coming days.
Pakistan recently offered ceasefire agreements to militants in the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas on the border with Afghanistan. These were not only summarily rejected, but followed with attacks in the two Waziristans on security forces, and then the Marriott operation.
For both the militants and the United States, the gloves have come off. Clearly, Washington is concerned at the lack of progress in clipping the wings of the militancy in Pakistan (read al-Qaeda fugitives) and that the Taliban have bases in Pakistan to fuel their insurgency in Afghanistan.
In the crucial few weeks before the US presidential elections there is nothing the George W Bush administration would like more than a real smoking gun to justify the long years of its "war on terror". The soldiers now based Tarbella are on the trail. But so are the militants.