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Analysts fear Pakistan could fall to extremists

September 23, 2008|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — More than any other terrorist attack in this volatile country, the devastating truck bombing of the Marriott Hotel over the weekend has presented government and military leaders here with a stark choice: Go all out against extremists or risk the nation's collapse into chaos.

That is the growing consensus among many Pakistani analysts and commentators, who fear that without rapid, determined and ironfisted action by officials and security forces, this nuclear-armed land is in danger of becoming a failed state, with Islamic radicals in control.

On Monday, the government described just how close those militants may have come to dealing Pakistan an almost fatal blow. A senior official said that President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani and top Cabinet members were supposed to dine together at the Marriott on Saturday night -- but switched venues just before the bombing.

"At the eleventh hour, the president and prime minister decided that the venue would be the prime minister's house," Rehman Malik, the Interior Ministry's top official, told reporters. "It saved the entire leadership."

Malik did not explain what inspired the change in plans. A representative of the hotel later cast doubt on the statement, telling the Associated Press that there were no plans for a government dinner at the Marriott on Saturday.

Malik's disclosure, if true, betrayed the alarming extent to which militants have beefed up their intelligence capabilities and upgraded their planning and operations accordingly. Local media reported that Gilani would hold an emergency meeting today to discuss tightening security to prevent more attacks like Saturday's.

The suicide bombing of the Marriott, an icon of social and political wheeling and dealing here in the Pakistani capital, killed 53 people, including at least two Americans, and wounded more than 250.

The U.S. Central Command on Monday identified one of the slain Americans as Air Force Maj. Rodolfo I. Rodriguez, 34, of El Paso. The name of the other had not yet been released.

Robert S. Prucha, deputy director of public affairs for the Central Command, said a number of other members of the U.S. military were at the hotel and suffered minor scrapes and cuts. None required hospitalization, he said.

No verifiable claim of responsibility has surfaced, although a shadowy group called Fedayeen Islam told Al Arabiya television that it was behind the attack. From the ferocity and size of the bombing, suspicion has fallen on Al Qaeda and a movement known as the Pakistani Taliban.

The descent into violence and fear here has been sharp.

In a country where suicide bombings were relatively rare five years ago, more than 300 people have been killed in such attacks this year. What seemed at first to be a threat confined to the nation's fringes, in the rugged and uncontrollable border and tribal areas, has now penetrated urban centers, including the very heart of this leafy, broad-avenued capital.

The violence gripping the nation continued Monday with the kidnapping of a top foreign diplomat in the city of Peshawar, in Pakistan's tribal belt.

Abdul Khaliq Farahi, the Afghan consul general there, who was to become Kabul's ambassador to Islamabad in the next few days, was abducted on his way home from the consulate Monday afternoon by gunmen who shot and killed his driver. No word has been received from the kidnappers, said Majnoon Gulab, the deputy Afghan ambassador.

In recent weeks, the Pakistani army has stepped up its campaign against militancy in mountainous areas near the border with Afghanistan, such as in the Bajaur region, and in the Swat valley. The military says it has inflicted severe losses on the extremists, including a dozen who were killed in Swat on Monday. At the same time, a suicide bombing killed eight people in the area.

The bombing of the Marriott may have been in retaliation for the military campaign, as well as a general strike against the government of Zardari, the newly elected president and widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Zardari had delivered his maiden address to lawmakers just hours before.

But he and his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, have also shown a willingness to negotiate and declare truces with insurgents, perhaps in a nod to the many Pakistanis who denounce the government for targeting its own people and who view the crackdown as America's proxy war.

The attack on the Marriott, most of whose victims were Pakistanis, and the fact that it may have been a mass assassination attempt ought to remove any doubt in the minds of the public and dissenting officials that the country is facing an existential threat, said analyst Mahmood Shah, a retired general who was head of security in the militant-ridden tribal areas.

"There is no more room for any wavering. There is no more time left," Shah said. "These extremists want to capture power in Pakistan. . . . There shouldn't be any soft-pedaling of this whole issue."

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