Pakistan bombing violence worsens

At least 36 more died near the U.S. ally's Afghan border. The region is considered an al-Qaeda and Taliban haven.

Posted: July 16, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - A vicious campaign of violence against the Pakistani military, a strategic U.S. ally, continued yesterday as a round of suicide bombings killed at least 36 soldiers and police recruits, and wounded more than 95 in a region regarded as an al-Qaeda and Taliban safe haven.

The attacks brought the weekend's death toll to 60 soldiers and recruits, and more than 120 wounded in a series of strikes unleashed by insurgents in tribal areas close to Afghanistan. As the bodies were counted, insurgents announced that they were backing out of a truce with the Pakistani government.

The bloodshed comes at a time of great uncertainty in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation with border areas that, according to U.S. intelligence reports, function as operational bases for al-Qaeda. There are few signs of widespread revolt - most Pakistanis are ethnically distinct from the tribes on the border, and are far more moderate. However, the unrest worries many in Washington, which depends on President Pervez Musharraf to help curb radical elements in a country that has become a focal point of global Islamic radicalism.

In the last week, Musharraf has shifted thousands of Pakistani troops to the Afghan border, a lawless stretch of mountains and small towns that are thought to be sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and other senior al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. It is not clear, though, whether the build-up is for a large-scale operation or simply to add enough troops to maintain stability.

The answer, many Pakistani analysts said, could have a significant impact on the future of the country.

A massive military strike might enflame insurgents and lead to further destabilization in a nation beset in the last two months by riots and demonstrations following Musharraf's suspension of the chief justice of the supreme court, and a government raid of an Islamabad mosque.

"On the television they are showing 130-millimeter [artillery] guns being moved as if they are going to fight a war," said Mirza Aslam Beg, a retired general and chief of Pakistan's military from 1988 to 1991. "The situation is very serious."

In America, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley said on a round of Sunday morning talk shows that the Bush administration has pushed for more robust action.

"These extremists, these Taliban, are a threat to him [Musharraf] and to us. And he has taken action against them," Hadley said. "But the action has, at this point, not been adequate, not effective."

Hadley continued: "He's doing more. We are urging him to do more, and we're providing full support to what he's contemplating."

Against that backdrop, a Taliban council in the hotbed border region of Pakistan's North Waziristan region issued a statement yesterday saying that it was withdrawing from a controversial peace deal with Musharraf's government.

The agreement, struck in September, had guaranteed that Pakistani troops would leave checkpoints in the area if local tribal members and insurgents agreed to not attack Pakistani security forces and to stop harboring foreign fighters such as those loyal to al-Qaeda.

"The Taliban signed the peace agreement with the government to ensure the safety of the lives and property of the people," the statement said. "Now, we have decided to end the deal for the sake of the people."

As that statement was being circulated, an undated video clip of Osama bin Laden surfaced on the Internet yesterday. Though it was not possible to know whether the timing was meant to coincide with the upheaval in Pakistan, its message seemed to fit well with the weekend's attacks.

Wearing army fatigues, bin Laden praised those who gave their lives in the fight against the West and its allies.

"The happy [man] is the one that God has chosen to be a martyr," he said.

There are indications that a recent Pakistani military operation against an Islamabad mosque fueled the attacks this weekend.

A commando operation last week at a mosque - Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque - in Pakistan's capital killed at least 86 civilians and troops during heavy fighting.

In the aftermath of the battle, Maulana Fazlullah, a rebel cleric in the country's North West Frontier Province, called for jihad against Musharraf's government. Both attacks yesterday occurred in that province.

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