Lahore bombings fuel pressure for Pakistan to rethink counter-terror strategy

LAHORE, Pakistan – The spread of terrorism across Pakistan yesterday from its unruly tribal regions to the cultural capital of Lahore has added to pressure to rethink its U.S.-allied president’s approach to countering al-Qaida and the Taliban as a new government prepares to take office.

After two deadly suicide bombings in this normally peaceful eastern city, pressure grew for more dialogue with militants and less punitive military action, which President Pervez Musharraf’s opponents say has only fueled the violence.

At least 24 people were killed and more than 200 wounded yesterday when massive explosions ripped through a police headquarters and a business located near a house belonging to the widower of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto.

Musharraf quickly condemned the “savage” bombings and said in a statement the government would continue to fight terrorism “with full force.” Authorities have blamed Taliban and al-Qaida militants for a recent surge of bombings.

But some enraged Lahore residents blamed the Pakistani president, gathering in small groups yesterday on the city’s main Mall Road, chanting “Musharraf is a dog, Musharraf is a pimp.”

The winners of last month’s elections accused the former army strongman of destabilizing the country with military operations against militants near the Afghan border and even suggested that rogue forces were trying to undermine Pakistan’s return to democracy.

“He has carried out indiscriminate operations in the tribal areas that have opened up new fault lines in Pakistani society,” said Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for the party set to partner with Bhutto’s in the new government. “Unless he resigns, there will always be a cause for all these groups to carry on these activities.”

Yesterday’s blasts happened about 15 minutes apart in different districts of Lahore. The first tore the facade from the seven-story Federal Investigation Agency building as staff were beginning their work day.

The explosives-packed vehicle managed to penetrate security, drive into a parking lot and detonate close to the building – which houses part of the federal police’s anti-terrorism unit – devastating offices on the lower floors and blowing out the walls around a stairwell, city police chief Malik Mohammed Iqbal said.

Grainy footage from a surveillance camera shown on the private Aaj television channel showed the small truck running over a guard and barreling through the gate seconds before the blast.

While al-Qaida-linked militants in Iraq have regularly used vehicles to launch massive attacks on buildings, such damage has rarely been inflicted on a government building in Pakistan.

Officials said 21 people were killed, including 16 police, and more than 200 people were wounded. Doctors at Lahore hospitals said the dead included a 3-year-old girl, while 32 girls were injured by flying debris at a nearby Roman Catholic elementary school.

The second blast all but flattened the office of an advertising agency in the affluent Model Town neighborhood about 15 miles away. Police said two children and the wife of the house’s gardener were killed.

Officials declined to speculate about whether the Lahore residence of Bhutto’s widower, Asif Ali Zardari, located less than 50 yard away, was the intended target. Zardari, who succeeded Bhutto at the helm of her party, was in the capital, Islamabad, at the time.

Interior Ministry spokesman Javed Iqbal Cheema said it was possible that “terrorists are trying to put maximum pressure on the government that is in the making” to soften their resolve against them.

Pakistan faces an enemy that is “nameless, faceless and there are people who are working in small groups,” he said. He declined to identify any group suspected in yesterday’s attack.

Yesterday’s violence was the first major act of terrorism since former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party announced over the weekend they would form a coalition government aimed at reducing Musharraf’s powers.

Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Bhutto’s party, agreed the blast seemed to be a message to Zardari and the party “to deter them from pursuing its democratic struggle.”

But Babar echoed Bhutto’s oft-repeated suspicion that Islamist sympathizers embedded in Pakistan’s powerful military-led establishment and intelligence agencies were involved.

Sunday’s coalition pact ended talk that her party would snub Sharif, its traditional rival, and tie up with the rump of Musharraf’s ruling party, which suffered a heavy defeat in the Feb. 18 parliamentary vote.

In Washington, the State Department signaled a willingness to work closely with whatever new government emerges.

“We have talked to all the parties, telling them all, ‘We will work with whoever emerges as the leadership,'” said assistant secretary of state Richard Boucher. But he also made plain the administration’s goal was “to continue support to counter terrorism.”

Until recently, Lahore – a metropolis of 7 million people that boasts Pakistan’s grandest monuments and most vibrant intellectual scene – had been spared the suicide attacks that have struck all other major cities in the past year.

But now it has suffered three attacks within two months. On Jan. 10, a militant walked into a crowd of police guarding a courthouse and blew himself up, killing 24. A double suicide attack in Lahore killed four people at a navy training college last week.

“I have seen the pictures on television and this is just like in Iraq. It is very frightening, it is terrible,” said Nasir Mahmood, a 52-year-old hawking leather wallets in a city market.

After yesterday’s blasts, Australia announced it was postponing its cricket tour to Pakistan due to security concerns.

Pakistan’s new parliament is to hold its first session Monday, and Sharif’s spokesman said lawmakers would quickly begin the task of drawing up a new policy on countering extremism.

Sharif has called for the war on terror to be redefined and for more dialogue with militants to try to halt the violence. Both he and Zardari have met U.S. officials to discuss security policy, but neither has laid out his ideas in detail.

Kamran Shafi, a prominent political analyst, forecast the new government would try to avoid heavy-handed operations that have caused civilian casualties and given militants a propaganda coup.

Their approach will be: “We’ve got to speak to them, they are our own people, and convince them to get away from terrorism, and if need be, we will fight them. And I think that is what they will do,” Shafi said.

Even some of Musharraf’s backers are urging a rethink.

Mushahid Hussain, a senior member of Musharraf’s former ruling party, said Pakistan had piled troops into the border without proper training or a strategy to end the impoverished region’s isolation – resulting in heavy casualties for both security forces and civilians.

He said the United States had then “outsourced” the war to NATO and Pakistan to focus on Iraq and only recently recognized its mistake.

“The blame-game won’t help. What is needed is a policy review based on consultation and consensus,” Hussain said.