Militant violence returned to Pakistan's capital yesterday on the anniversary of the storming of the Red Mosque. A suicide bomber detonated a device next to a police post less than half a mile from the controversial Lal Masjid. At least 15 officers were killed and 22 injured.
The blast took place near the Melody Market in the centre of Islamabad. Extra police units had been positioned there since the morning, when thousands of radical students gathered outside the pro-Taliban Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque to mark the anniversary of last summer's siege, which resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.
Thick streaks of blood marked where victims were thrown by the blast. Body parts were found several yards away, amid scattered shards of broken glass. The area was quickly cordoned off as ambulances ferried the injured to nearby hospitals.
Rehman Malik, the senior official at the interior ministry, said investigators had recovered the bomber's upper torso. "The man was 35 to 37 years in age," he added. "We have to take these people out of our ranks. We have to combat them."
At the scene of the outrage, a police official pointed to a spot on the ground next to him and said: "The man who died here was a constable from Azad Kashmir. They were just on duty in case the people from the mosque created trouble. The blast took place just after their meeting ended."
The attack raised fears that the country could be plunged into a renewed phase of militant violence. It also came at a time of deepening uncertainty for Pakistanis, with the economy in sharp decline, soaring prices and the new coalition government looking shakier by the day.
Political controversies which first sent Pakistan into crisis last year have yet to be resolved: the fate of the deeply unpopular President Pervez Musharraf, calls for the restoration of the judges he sacked, and rising militancy along the Afghan border and settled areas of the North-West Frontier Province.
Ten days ago, troops launched an offensive against militants threatening the strategically crucial city of Peshawar. In the aftermath, Baitullah Mehsud, the senior Taliban commander in Pakistan, had threatened retaliatory attacks.
Police have frequently been targeted by militants in the estimated 300 attacks which have taken place since 2006. Last month, a suicide car bombing outside the Danish embassy killed at least eight policemen and security guards. Other targets have included members of the military and intelligence agencies.
Earlier yesterday, an angry crowd gathered outside the Red Mosque – an egg-domed building which has been painted a dull cream. Thickly-bearded men, many wearing red prayer caps, were joined by a couple of dozen women covered in black and revealing only their eyes. "We are here to commemorate the memory of our martyred leader, Abdul Rashid Ghazi," said Aziz al-Haq, 20, a student who lives nearby. "We are also here to demand that the madrassas that were destroyed last year be rebuilt and people pay for this crime against Islam."
He was among the more restrained. Calls rang out for "jihad", the "victory of Allah's brave soldiers in Pakistan" and for President Musharraf to be publicly hanged. Although his authority has sharply diminished since the February elections, hostility towards the US-backed retired general is undimmed. A recent poll by Gallup Pakistan established Mr Musharraf's "unfavourability" rating at 73 per cent. Pressure is also mounting from the men he once consigned to exile and house arrest. The former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, whom the same poll recognised as the country's most popular politician, has called for Mr Musharraf to be tried for high treason.
In an interview on Friday, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the disgraced nuclear scientist revered by Pakistanis, reopened the controversy surrounding his nuclear deals by pointing blame at Mr Musharraf and the army he led. "It was a North Korean plane, and the army had complete knowledge about it and the equipment," Dr Khan said of the shipment of 15 centrifuges from Pakistan to North Korea. "It must have gone with [Musharraf's] consent."
Also uncertain is the future of the chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, whom Mr Musharraf sacked during the state of emergency last year. The lawyers who back him recently mounted an impressive demonstration in front of parliament. They are threatening fresh protests if the judges are not reinstated.
The issue has almost cleaved a part the fragile coalition government led by Benazir Bhutto's widower, Asif Ali Zardari, and Nawaz Sharif. Mr Sharif pulled his ministers from the cabinet after Mr Zardari backtracked on an agreement to reinstate the judges. Mr Zardari, who leads the Pakistan People's Party, has lost considerable support over the issue as his government struggles to deal with a litany of economic problems.
Every day, newspapers are filled with reports of the rising costs of fuel, wheat flour and sugar. Inflation is at a 30-year high of 20 per cent, and the value of the Pakistani rupee has fallen to a record low.
Hotbed of radical Islam
*The Lal Masjid has long been known as a hotbed of radical Islam. Built in 1965 and located scarcely a mile from the buildings that house the Pakistani presidency and Parliament, the mosque and its adjoining madrassas have long had a reputation for attracting hardline students from the North West Frontier Province and tribal areas, where support for the Taliban is strong.
Leaders of the mosque have traditionally supported the political elite, but they openly condemned President Pervez Musharraf and called for his assassination after he declared his support for America's "war on terror".
Early last year, female students at the mosque set out on an anti-vice campaign that included kidnapping prostitutes. The complex was at the time under the control of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a radical cleric who wanted to impose his own austere form of Islamic law.
More than 100 people died in July 2007, when Pakistani troops stormed the mosque after an eight-day siege, in an effort to evict militants who had taken sanctuary within its walls.Reuse content