The siege at Pakistan’s red mosque entered a new and dangerous stage yesterday when a Pakistani army commander was shot and killed during an operation to blast holes in the mosque's perimeter walls. Lt. Col. Haroon-ul-Islam was killed and three other officers were wounded during a failed operation to free women and children authorities believe are being used as human shields. The six-day old siege in the capital Islamabad is being held by followers of the cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi. The Government says those inside are members of the illegal Harkat Jihad-e-Islam organisation which is suspected of killing US journalist Daniel Pearl.
At least 24 people have died so far in the stand-off at the mosque. Hundreds of troops surround the compound while there are disputed numbers of how many are inside. Ghazi himself says he has two thousand followers inside while his elder brother Maulana Abdul Aziz puts the figure at 850. While Ghazi remains inside with at least 60 heavily armed followers, his brother was arrested on Wednesday after he tried to escape from the mosque disguised in a burqa.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi came from an elite Pakistani family. His father Abdullah Aziz was the head of the Red Mosque. Ghazi gained his master’s degree in International Relations from one of Pakistan's most prominent universities, the Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. Ghazi joined the Pakistani Government and also worked for UNESCO. He lived a relatively western lifestyle until a life changing event in 1998. In that year his father Abdullah was murdered inside the mosque; the assassins were believed to be members of a rival Islamic group. Abdul Aziz took over the mosque and his brother dropped his western lifestyle to join him. The two quickly went on a hardline Islamic path. Ghazi now says he has chosen “martyrdom” over negotiations and hopes that his death would spark an Islamic revolution in Pakistan.
Lal Masjid or Red Mosque is Islamabad’s central mosque and is sited less than 3km away from the office of President Musharraf. The mosque is the favourite place of worship of Pakistan’s elite including members of the shadowy intelligence force ISI. Former president Zia-ul-Haq was said to be very close to Abdullah Aziz. The mosque has two madrassas (religious schools) which house thousands of students, one for women attached to the mosque itself and one for men a few minutes drive away.
Since the brothers took over, the mosque has become been a centre of radical Islamic learning. Though their rhetoric was toned down after Pakistan was co-opted into the so-called “War on Terror”, Lal Masjid remained strongly supportive of a “jihad against America”. Pakistani security forces tried to raid the mosque following the London in 2005 but were met by baton-wielding women who refused to let them enter the compound. That same year Abdul Aziz issued a fatwa declaring that Pakistani soldiers killed fighting militants in the northern tribal areas could not be given Muslim funeral rites.
In the last 12 months mosque students began challenging the writ of government by setting up a Taliban-style judicial system based on Sharia Law and acting as vigilantes to stop what they see as “moral crime”. The trouble escalated in January when the government ordered the demolition of what it called an illegal mosque. When the government didn’t act to stop the occupation of the building, the protesters became emboldened and took to the streets.
On Tuesday last week, a top level meeting of the Pakistani Government gave the order to launch an operation against the mosque. Authorities shut down the electricity supply to the mosque, closed two adjacent markets and blocked all roads into the area. Students carried Kalashnikovs and wore gas masks took up positions behind sandbags and dirt bunkers chanting “Jihad! Jihad!”, as police in riot vans fired volleys of tear gas. In the gun battle that followed 20 people were killed and over 100 were injured.
Six days on the students remain barricaded inside the mosque compound. On Saturday General Musharraf gave them a "surrender or die" ultimatum. While hundreds initially emerged, departures have dried up leading to the conclusion that only hardcore followers of the brothers remain. However there is also the possibility that some remain against their will. One man with a relative inside told AP that there are 250 hostages inside the mosque. Bakht Sher said he spoke by mobile phone with his nephew who told him that the hostages were being held in a basement area of the complex. He said his nephew saw the body of a man who had been shot dead while trying to escape.
Musharraf now has the dilemma of trying to storm a heavily armed compound without making martyrs of those inside. Those remaining inside the compound have apparently taken oaths on the Koran to fight to the death in the hope of sparking an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. Musharraf knows that he must move cautiously to avoid antagonising the country’s powerful Islamic clerics. At the same time he knows that every day the crisis drags on is a victory for Abdul Rashid Ghazi.
The implications are already being felt elsewhere in Pakistan. Troops were deployed to Malakand and Dir district in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) after a militant mullah Maulana Fazlullah declared holy war on the Government because of its handling of the siege in Islamabad. Pakistan say there are close links between Fazlullah and the Red Mosque with many of the mosque’s students from remote tribal areas such as NWFP. Meanwhile the Government has called for patience in Islamabad. "We will have to play this wait game,” said Pakistan's information minister, Tariq Azim. “It may take a while, but I think we will succeed in the end."