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Hotel Bombing Complicates Pakistan's Fight Against Terrorism


Pakistani security guards stand on the rim of the bomb crater in front of the devastated Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on September 22.

A little known Islamic group has claimed responsibility for the suicide truck bombing on September 20 at Islamabad's five-star Marriott Hotel that killed at least 53 people and injured as many as 270 others, Al-Arabiyah television has reported.

In an audio tape aired by Al-Arabiyah, Fedayeen Islam (Partisans of Islam) is demanding the closure of U.S. and NATO military bases in the region and the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, and an end to U.S. attacks against tribal areas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Al-Arabiyah said the authenticity of the tape could not be verified.

Previously, Pakistan had pointed the likely blame at extremists in South Waziristan, referring to tribal areas where Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are active.

A top Interior Ministry official, Rehman Malik, said Pakistan's civilian and military leadership escaped the bombing when a dinner scheduled to take place at the Marriott was moved to the prime minister's official residence at the last moment.

'New Type Of Group'

Khalid Aziz, a former-bureaucrat-turned-analyst in Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar, believes the original target of the bombing was likely to have been parliament, where earlier that day the political and military elite of the country had gathered to listen to President Asif Ali Zardari's annual address.

Aziz says that although the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are routinely blamed for such attacks, it is possible that a new group executed this attack.

"My suspicion is that perhaps it is a new type of a group which has emerged," Aziz tells RFE/RL. "Although it penetrated the security apparatus in one of the most secure places in Pakistan, there is this contradiction. [The bomber] wasn't well-trained."

Security-camera footage released by the Interior Ministry on September 21 shows a dump truck being stopped at the hotel's outer security gate. Moments later, the driver apparently commits suicide by exploding a bomb in the cabin. The truck then catches fire and the huge bomb explodes a short time later.

Aftab Sherpao, a senior politician and former interior minister from Pakistan's troubled Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), tells RFE/RL that the current government has a good opportunity to correct past mistakes and come up with a popular policy to combat terrorism.

'New National Sentiment'

Sherpao says that attacks such as the one at the Marriott are demoralizing and that the government looks helpless in the face of such a terrorist onslaught.

"On the surface, it seems that the government is helpless in many respects. With the passage of time this affects the [working of] government agencies," Sherpao says. "And the law enforcement agencies are disheartened by such incidents. That's why we need to create a new national sentiment in the people [by formulating a new antiterrorism policy]."

Since taking office early this year, Pakistan's new civilian government has been talking about a comprehensive counterterrorism policy that, while maintaining a credible military deterrent, also includes political reforms, economic development, and reconciliation as its main components.

But the government's weak authority and the crossborder attacks by U.S. forces against what it says are Taliban and Al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan make the implementation of such a policy challenging, if not impossible.

Meanwhile, international agencies are reporting that Pakistani security forces opened fire on U.S. helicopter gunships that had allegedly violated Pakistani airspace in the tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.

Stop Sheltering Militants

Latif Afridi, a senior leader of the Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party in Peshawar, says that Pakistan is too dependent on the United States for military and economic aid and it will be very difficult for it to confront Washington about the crossborder attacks.

Pakistani soldiers pay their respects in front of the coffin of Czech Ambassador Ivo Zdarek during a ceremony in Rawalpindi. Zdarek was killed in the bombing.

Afridi says the real solution is for the Pakistanis to go after the terrorist sanctuaries and stop sheltering Afghan militants.

"Whatever Pakistan says publicly, it has to support the United States in the war on terror," Afridi says. "It's unfortunate that I have to say this, but the Pakistani [security] agencies are sending [armed] people to Afghanistan. And they haven't wholeheartedly supported the Americans in the war against terrorism."

Such questions about Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism are likely to complicate the job of convincing the United States of Islamabad's seriousness of purpose when Zardari meets Bush later this week in Washington.

'Winning Hearts And Minds'

Aziz, the analyst in Peshawar, maintains that it will be difficult for Pakistan to deter U.S. forces from attacking targets inside its tribal areas, on which it exercises little control.

He says Pakistan faces a great challenge and the only option is to take the initiative back from the militants and start to rebuild the state from the bottom.

"You cannot rely purely on a military strategy. You have to look at the counterinsurgency approach. You have to look at winning the hearts and minds. You have to look at going down to the people and organizing them on the community level," Aziz says. "And instead of a patronage based around politicians, you have to worry about the community. There is still hope, people are rising up [against the Taliban] in certain areas."

Pakistani media recently reported that Pashtun communities in the Dir, Bajaur, Mardan, and Peshawar districts of the tribal areas and NWFP have organized themselves to rid their regions of the Taliban. The Pakistani government has so far indicated little interest in tapping popular frustration with the militants.
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.