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Pakistan Scores in Anti-Terror Fight; Falls Behind in Democracy - 2003-12-22


This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series

Pakistan remained at the forefront of the war on terrorism in 2003, capturing key members of the al-Qaida terrorist network and banning several extremist groups sympathetic to its cause. Pakistan struck a blow against terrorism early in 2003, capturing al-Qaida's suspected number-three man: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He was handed over to U.S. custody as the alleged planner of the September 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

Pakistan also stepped up military patrols along its border with Afghanistan to address concerns it was not doing enough to stop fugitive members of the ousted Taleban government and al-Qaida militants from moving freely across the border.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan says the government has made Pakistani territory inhospitable for such forces.

"We do not give them sanctuaries and we have impeded their movement," he said. "The proof of that is that we have handed over so many suspected terrorists to the United States and we have apprehended them in large numbers."

President Musharraf also continued cracking down on Islamic extremist groups loyal to the al-Qaida terror network, calling them the biggest threat to the country.

He outlawed six groups, some of them declared terrorist organizations by the United States, and sealed their offices and seized their bank accounts.

That crackdown and Mr. Musharraf's support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism have outraged many people in Pakistan, including Islamic militants. Authorities blame these groups for retaliatory attacks against foreigners and Christians in the country.

They also think the militants may have been responsible for an assassination attempt against the president a few weeks ago.

Mr. Musharraf himself says the bombing of a bridge his motorcade had just crossed was the work of "religious terrorists."

"I felt the explosion in my car," he said. "It was certainly a terrorist act, and certainly it was me who was targeted."

Analysts say Pakistan's vital role in the war on terrorism and its effort to curb domestic extremism has raised the country's global profile.

"Pakistan made considerable headway in mainstreaming itself as far as international community is concerned," said Syed Talat Hussain, a columnist and political commentator. "Therefore, many benefits flowed towards Pakistan by way of international aid, assistance and also the backing that the Musharraf government got."

President Musharraf's critics maintain the decision to join the war on terrorism was designed to gain acceptance for his military rule. The president took power in a coup in 1999.

The executive director of Islamabad's Institute of Policy Studies, Khalid Rehman, says the crackdown on strict Islamic groups has been dictated by the United States. He said it has distanced Mr. Musharraf from his own people.

"The government has not come up with any solid evidence in any court of law about these organizations," said Mr. Rehman. "And unless that is done, there will be apprehensions about the intention of the government and the action would not be really acceptable to the people."

Opposition politicians such as Ehsan Iqbal blame President Musharraf's undemocratic policies for the rise in militant Islam in recent years. Mr. Iqbal pointed to the ban on public political party gatherings until after the parliamentary elections in 2002.

"Once General Musharraf targeted the mainstream parties, he has created space for these extreme groups to grow, to grow in influence," he said. "Now he is saying to the West that 'I am curbing it.' Militancy is directly proportional to lack of democracy in the country."

But President Musharraf's supporters say he has taken serious steps to establish democracy. Mushahid Hussain is a lawmaker in the pro-military ruling party.

"We have taken the steps to build up a genuine democratic culture," said Mr. Hussain. "I think it will take some time and in that endeavor the opposition and the government should jointly work to make that attainable."

Under international pressure, President Musharraf allowed elections to be held in October 2002. But he has not fully transferred powers to the elected government, even though it supports him.

He also pushed through a package of controversial constitutional amendments just before the elections. The changes allow him to remain head of the army while continuing to serve as president.

The amendments also give him power him to dismiss the elected government. Opposition parties have refused to accept the changes and protested against them throughout the past year, which blocked most legislative business in the Parliament.