Associated Press Writer
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Legal experts and security officials met with Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf Thursday, as the government weighed whether to invoke a state of emergency for what it said were mounting "external and internal" threats, officials said.
Tariq Azim, minister of state for information, said talk from the United States about the possibility of U.S. military action against al-Qaida in Pakistan "has started alarm bells ringing and has upset the Pakistani public." He mentioned Democratic presidential hopeful Barak Obama by name as an example of someone who made such comments, saying his recent remarks were one reason the government was debating a state of emergency.
But it appeared the motivation for an emergency declaration was domestic political woes of Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S. war on terrorism.
His popularity has dwindled and his standing has been badly shaken by a failed bid to oust the country's chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry — an independent-minded judge likely to rule on expected legal challenges to Musharraf's bid to seek a new five-year presidential term.
It was not immediately clear how Musharraf might gain politically from a state of emergency, but it would give him sweeping powers, including the ability to restrict people's freedom to move, rally, and engage in political activities.
He would also gain powers to restrict the parliament's right to make laws, and to suspend the courts' ability to hear cases on fundamental rights such as freedom of movement. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has lodged a freedom of movement case with the Supreme Court that could allow him to return from exile to run in parliamentary elections due soon.
"These are only unconfirmed reports although the possibility of imposition of emergency cannot be ruled out and has recently been talked about and discussed, keeping in mind some external and internal threats and the law and order situation," Tariq Azim, minister of state for information, told The Associated Press.
"We hope that it does not happen. But we are going through difficult circumstances so the possibility of an emergency cannot be ruled out," he said.
Azim referred to recent Pakistani military action against militants in northwestern border areas that he said had resulted in the deaths of many soldiers.
More than 360 people have died during a wave of suicide attacks and clashes between militants and security forces that began with a bloody army assault on a pro-Taliban mosque in Islamabad in early July.
Legal experts and security officials began arriving at Musharraf's office in the capital, Islamabad, at midmorning for meetings on the issue, a presidential aide said. Attorney General Malik Abdul Qayyum said he had been summoned to meet Musharraf later Thursday, but he had not been told the reason.
The aide said Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz held talks with Musharraf before leaving Thursday morning to attend a U.S.-backed tribal peace council aimed at curtailing cross-border militancy by the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Musharraf on Wednesday abruptly pulled out of the meeting in Kabul with more than 600 Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders, phoning Afghan President Hamid Karzai to say he couldn't attend because of "engagements" in Islamabad.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke with Musharraf by phone for more than 15 minutes in the early hours of Thursday, said an official in Washington on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. The official refused to discuss the content of the conversation.
Earlier, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. understands Musharraf's decision to pull out of the meeting in Afghanistan.
"President Musharraf certainly wouldn't stay back in Islamabad if he didn't believe he had good and compelling reasons to stay back," McCormack said.
Musharraf is under growing American pressure to crack down on militants at the Afghan border because of fears that al-Qaida is regrouping there.
The Bush administration has also not ruled out unilateral military action inside Pakistan, but like Obama, has stressed the need to work with Musharraf.
On Wednesday, Obama was asked again about his views on Pakistan.
"We can't send millions and millions of dollars to Pakistan for military aid and be a constant ally to them and yet not see more aggressive action in dealing with al-Qaida," he told reporters in Oakland, Calif.
However, he did not repeat the most incendiary line from his foreign policy speech last week when he promised: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."
On Tuesday night, Obama appeared to soften his position during a debate with other Democratic presidential hopefuls.
"I did not say that we would immediately go in unilaterally. What I said was that we have to work with Musharraf, because the biggest threats to American security right now are in the northwest provinces of Pakistan."
Obama and his spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday on Pakistan's possible declaration of a state of emergency.
On Thursday, Chaudhry considered a petition lodged by Sharif — whom Musharraf ousted in a coup eight years ago — seeking the court's help in coming home. Chaudhry adjourned the hearing until Aug. 16, when the government will have to explain its position, said Akram Sheikh, one of Sharif's lawyers.
Musharraf says Sharif struck a deal with his government that he would not return home for 10 years. Sharif denied any deal.
Shahbaz Sharif, the former prime minister's brother, said a state of emergency would be aimed at preventing Sharif from returning to Pakistan. "There is no justification, no basis for emergency," he told Pakistan's Geo TV from London.
Another exiled former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, widely reported to have met with Musharraf recently in the United Arab Emirates to discuss a power-sharing deal, told Geo it would be a "a negative step for the restoration of democracy."
Also Thursday, opposition party lawmakers vowed to oppose any imposition of emergency. "We will not accept it," said Naveed Qamar, a lawmaker from Bhutto's party.
Under Pakistan's Constitution, the president may declare a state of emergency if it is deemed the country's security is "threatened by war or external aggression, or by internal disturbance beyond" the authority of provincial governments to control.
The Supreme Court — which has emerged as the most potent check on the military leader's dominance of Pakistani politics — could still challenge the legality of a state of emergency.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
| By Aamer Ahmed Khan |
BBC Urdu Service, Islamabad
Understandably so, as the battle for the radical institution in the heart of the Pakistani capital may have pushed the country's military leader into a war that he had been working hard to avoid since 11 September 2001.
The 102 people killed in the week-long siege included 11 soldiers and an as yet unknown number of extremists and their hostages.
It was the fiercest battle fought by security forces in mainland Pakistan since Gen Musharraf vowed to dismantle the militant jihadi network in the country in the aftermath of the attacks on the US.
But even with the battle won, the president's mind may not be on its ferocity or the resultant death toll.
Instead, he may be wondering what message the battle may have sent to other religious extremists camped in mosques, religious schools or secret hideouts across the country.
Defunct militant group
Among the many questions about the Red Mosque episode which remain unanswered are the critical issues of who the militants were and what exactly they wanted.
Did they really believe that they could defeat Pakistan's half-million-strong army?
| || Because we had lost contact with [Jaish-e-Mohammad], we had no idea where most of its activists spent their time before some of them resurfaced at the Red Mosque. |
Pakistani security official
Security officials told the BBC during the siege that they had reasons to believe that most of the militants holed up inside the mosque belonged to the supposedly defunct Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammed).
Jaish-e-Mohammad was formed by a radical cleric, Maulana Masood Azhar, in early 2000 to support the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Before that Maulana Azhar had been arrested and jailed in India.
He was released by the Indian authorities in 1999, in exchange for passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines jet. The aircraft was allegedly seized and flown to Kandahar in Afghanistan by his supporters.
He formed the Jaish-e-Mohammad soon after returning to Pakistan and, according to Pakistani security officials, the Red Mosque was used by its members to regroup.
Despite this, Pakistani intelligence reportedly failed to monitor what the group was doing.
Security officials say they severed contact with the group after it was suspected of being involved in the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in Delhi.
"Whenever the state suddenly withdraws its support from such groups, they tend to splinter," said one senior security official.
"That is exactly what happened to Jaish, and because we had lost contact with the group, we had no idea where most of its activists spent their time before some of them resurfaced at the Red Mosque."
Midway through the week-long siege of the mosque, interior ministry officials said they had "a very good idea" of who the militants were and to which group they belonged.
| || |
RED MOSQUE STAND-OFF
3 July: Clashes erupt at mosque, 16 killed, after long student campaign for Islamic Sharia law
4 July: About 700 students leave mosque, now besieged by security forces; mosque leader caught trying to flee wearing woman's burka
5 July: More than 1,000 students surrender to security forces
6 July: Women are allowed to leave the mosque; students' deputy leader says he would rather die than surrender
8 July: Ministers say wanted militants are holding women and children inside the mosque
9 July: Negotiators talk to mosque leader via loudspeaker without progress; three Chinese workers are killed in Peshawar over siege
10 July: Pakistani troops storm mosque after failure of talks; army says Ghazi killed
11 July: Pakistani army says all militants cleared from mosque
Many of the militants inside the mosque had clearly worked with Pakistani security services before and knew how to deal with them.
The deputy leader of the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in the final assault, had never been secretive about his contacts with the intelligence services.
Although it seems highly unlikely that he and his supporters believed they could defeat the Pakistani army and take over Islamabad, it was obvious before the final confrontation that they were itching to take on the security forces.
Despite this, President Musharraf said he tried every trick in the book to reach a negotiated settlement with the militants.
In the hours before the final assault, many leading religious and secular figures, including politicians from the ruling party, were involved in efforts to find a last-ditch peaceful settlement.
Ghazi himself said that many of the proposals floated by the negotiators were acceptable to him but not to his "friends".
Setting the agenda
"Our analysis of the failed negotiations only points to one direction - the militants were determined to trigger a full-fledged battle," a senior security official said.
If that indeed is the case, then the logic driving their determination could have been similar to the one that had led them to attack the Indian parliament.
| || The obvious conclusion for an extremist mind was that the only way they could establish an Islamic state in Pakistan was through an armed and bloody uprising. |
Security officials say the militants probably wanted to demonstrate to others across the country that their worldview had no political space in Pakistan.
None of the political parties, including the religious ones, were likely to come to their support if the government turned on them.
And very few people across the world were going to be concerned militants were killed on the pretext of eliminating extremism.
The obvious conclusion for an extremist mind was that the only way they could establish an Islamic state in Pakistan was through an armed and bloody uprising.
Security officials have said that if this was the message the militants wanted to send, then it may be the beginning of a new low-intensity conflict between religious fanatics and law enforcers across Pakistan.
The coming weeks and months may therefore see a series of clashes, probably starting in the conservative North West Frontier Province and then spreading elsewhere in the country.
Hence the reports of widespread troop redeployments in recent days.
President Musharraf must be painfully aware that such events could further erode his credibility as a bulwark against radical Islam, and force him to turn his army against its own people - a possibility inimical to his agenda of enlightened moderation.