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Pakistan's Riot History Gives the U.S. Pause

Security: In the current volatile atmosphere, officials fear a repeat of the 1979 mob assault on the American Embassy and other attacks.


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Khalid Mahmud remembers the day in 1979 as though it was yesterday.

It was a scene that American diplomats here in these tense days after the commencement of U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan hope won't be repeated. It also explains why the U.S. Embassy this week resembles a fortress, surrounded by security checkpoints and brick walls topped with razor-edged concertina wire.

In November 1979, the Kaaba--the central shrine of Islam, in the Saudi city of Mecca--had been the site of a violent conflict sparked by dissident pilgrims opposed to the Saudi monarchy. But the rumor that coursed through the maze of markets in the old Pakistani city of Rawalpindi was that the Kaaba had been seized by Americans or Israelis.

As if summoned by a single compelling voice, tens of thousands of Pakistanis rushed to the U.S. Embassy compound in nearby Islamabad, the capital.

Surging past security in a giant wave of rage, the rioters destroyed the wall outside the embassy brick by brick and ransacked offices. Four people were killed, including a Marine guard, before the protesters were subdued by Pakistani army troops.

"I'd never seen anything like it and hope to never again," said Mahmud, a former political science professor at Pakistan's University of the Punjab who has studied crowd behavior. "They came by bicycle and rickshaw and by foot. Bus drivers changed their routes and headed toward the embassy. All on the basis of an unconfirmed rumor."

It was not the first attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission here, nor the last. In 1989, the American Center in Islamabad was attacked by mobs; six demonstrators were killed by police fire. In 1995, two employees of the U.S. Consulate in the port city of Karachi were slain as they drove to work. In 1999, remote-controlled rockets were fired at the embassy and other buildings in Islamabad.

But it is the instantaneous, unpredictable mob behavior that is on the minds of U.S. and Pakistani officials these days in the volatile atmosphere surrounding the coalition operations in neighboring Afghanistan. The potential for violence was underscored Monday as a demonstration involving at least 10,000 people took place in Quetta, a Pakistani provincial capital near the Afghan border, followed by smaller protests in other cities.

Conscious of this history, U.S. Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin ordered nonessential diplomats, spouses and children evacuated from Islamabad and consular posts before the attacks in Afghanistan.

Keeping order on the streets and reining in anti-American sentiments will be one of the main challenges facing Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, whose political fate could hinge on the outcome.

The anti-American Urdu-language press here has alleged Israeli and even American complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Musharraf's government has ordered one Urdu newspaper closed after it listed the names of American guests at the U.S.-owned Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.

At a news conference Monday, Musharraf attempted to reassure foreign residents. "A cause of concern is the number of foreigners living in Pakistan who are leaving," Musharraf said. "I don't see any reason for this sense of apprehensiveness."

Crowds in densely populated South Asia can be among the most peaceful on Earth, but they can turn in a flash into a force that even disciplined armies have trouble subduing.

It is a phenomenon that historians have noted at least since the great rebellion by Indian soldiers against the British colonialists in 1857. That uprising--known in British textbooks as the Indian Mutiny and in South Asian histories as the Sepoy Rebellion--resulted in tens of thousands of deaths after it was ignited by rampant rumors among Muslim troops, called sepoys, that the British used pork fat to grease munitions. The unrest spread to Hindu troops when the rumor was altered to involve beef fat. Pigs are anathema to Muslims; cows are sacred to Hindus.

The same passion surfaced again in the riots that followed the 1947 partition of Britain's South Asia colony into India and Pakistan, during the 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy here, and in New Delhi during bloody riots that followed the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

The 1979 episode here left an indelible mark on those who experienced it.

Whipped to a fever pitch by rumors that Americans or Israelis had attacked the Kaaba, Pakistani youths tried to break into the American School in Islamabad but were repelled by a group of janitors and other staff wielding baseball bats and broom handles.

The defense of the school was organized not by Americans but by a retired Pakistani army officer. The schism in Pakistan's society is much the same today as it was then: a volatile minority of extremists fueled by a mixture of anti-American hate, poverty and religious fervor taking to the streets, as the country's military struggles to keep order.

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