Militants Taking Bloody Toll in Pakistan

Pakistan's Red Mosque, the scene of a deadly army siege against militants earlier this month, reopened on Friday amid chaotic scenes and protests by religious students who prevented a government-appointed cleric from leading prayers.

In early July an eight-day siege at the mosque ended when Pakistani soldiers stormed the compound, killing more than 100 people.

Friday, protesters demanded the return of the mosque's pro-Taliban former chief cleric, Abdul Aziz — who is in government detention — and shouted slogans against President Pervez Musharraf. Later, a cleric from a seminary associated with the mosque led the prayers.

The July 10 assault on the mosque by government troops has left deep scars in Pakistan's volatile and religiously conservative North-West Frontier Province — home to many of the religious students, male and female, who were based within the Red Mosque compound and were caught up in the siege.

Tasnim Aslam, a spokeswoman for Pakistan's foreign ministry, said the government's decision to storm the Red Mosque was regrettable, but unavoidable.

"For any government, when things come to such a pass that it has to open fire on its own people, it is very sad. It breaks our heart," she said.

Aslam said the activities of the extremists who seized the mosque after a campaign to unilaterally enforce Sharia law, in the region, left the government no choice but to take action.

"They were acting as vigilantes, going around arresting people," Aslam said. "No society would tolerate that."

As the siege wore on, Musharraf ordered his troops to storm the mosque complex.

Revenge attacks have followed, including suicide bombings.

Soldiers and police recruits were targeted. More than two hundred people died in the attacks within two weeks, mostly in the country's northwest.

Pakistanis began to talk of a full-scale confrontation between the moderates and fundamentalists and of a rising tide of violent religious extremism destabilizing the country.

Bente Abdul Aziz was one of 3,000 female students inside a madrassa, or religious school, within the Red Mosque compound during the siege, but she left, along with others before it was stormed by soldiers.

"Many of our fellow students, male and female, are still missing," she said. "We don't even know how many people were martyred, how many are missing and how many are back at home."

Dressed in an all-enveloping black burqa, which concealed even her eyes, she said she wanted the outside world to understand how she and her fellow religious students think.

Ignorance and poverty are often blamed for creating religious fundamentalism, but Aziz is middle-class and articulate. She has access to the Internet, a mobile phone and knowledge of world events.

Aziz sees the storming of the Red Mosque as a conflict which has set the Pakistani state and its army against the faithful.

"What happened to us was totally unacceptable. We were attacked by Muslims. We thought they were our brothers," she said.

Aziz disputes government claims that the red mosque (CAPS) clerics had a large arsenal of weapons. She does not deny that students kidnapped people, including an alleged brothel owner, but argues it was a religious duty to do so because Islam compels the faithful to intervene if they encounter sacrilegious behavior.

She points out that Musharraf himself has ignored the law. After all, she said, he seized power in a coup.

Aziz regrets leaving the Red Mosque complex before it was stormed, saying she would have much rather have died there.

"We were ready to die for Islam. That is what we wanted," she said.

Aziz said during the siege has deeply affected her and it is clear she is struggling to overcome trauma.

"I can't sleep, I don't want to eat, or drink," she said. "I suddenly wake up at night, and my whole body is shaking. It's because we're worried about our parents and brothers and sisters in prison and because we are awaiting Musharraf's downfall."

One does not have to travel far in the North-West Frontier Province to find others who feel the same way about their military ruler. In this part of the country, the storming of the Red Mosque has had a big impact on public opinion.

The province's parliament is controlled by an alliance of Islamic religious parties and on this highly conservative landscape, Musharraf's so-called "enlightened moderation" has few friends.

In his bakery in the village of Jhagra, Mumrez Khan was making the day's supply of cookies as residents gathered in the shop to drink tea and gossip.

Events at the Red Mosque, or Lal Masjid, are high on the agenda and anger over the event meshes with other grievances.

Half of the village is Pashtun, the same ethnic group as the Taliban militants fighting U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan on the far side of the Khyber pass, some 30 miles away.

The men of the bakery shop grumbled about Musharraf's support for Washington.

"We're fighting someone else's war," said a teacher, Mohammed Ershad, accusing the U.S. of having supported Musharraf's intervention at the mosque.

"The United States has never been happy with the performance of Pakistan," Ershad said. "Pakistan has suffered most of the casualties in the war in this region, more than the U.S., but the U.S. is always asking us to do more. What more can we do?"

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Aslam believes most Pakistanis were glad to see their government take on the extremists inside the Red Mosque.

"The majority of Pakistanis did not agree with what Lal Masjid clerics were doing," she said. "Even religious scholars from all schools of thought had come out and condemned the waywardness of this madrassa."

The government hopes the issue will fade away, and so do Pakistan's moderates.

For Bente Abdul Aziz, the madrassa student, that will never happen.

Listening to her talk, it is difficult not to conclude that the conflict between Pakistan's hard-line Islamists and the rest of society has yet to play out.

"This is not the first [time] Musharraf has done this sort of thing. The fire has just started," she says. "If the nation doesn't stand up against this, and if our clergy don't show some courage, then I fear this fire will destroy the whole of Pakistan."

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