Saturday, February 9, 2008

A Day in the Life of Pakistan

A suicide bomber killed at least 25 27 people, including two police officers and several children; and injured dozens in Charsadda, Pakistan in the turbulent North West Frontier province, an area where Islamist extremists have been battling government forces for control. It was the latest act in a wave of rampant violence that has steadily worsened since Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated on December 27.

The bomber struck at a rally organized by the secular Awami National Party, which opposes Islamist parties for support among the local ethnic Pashtun population. Abdul Waheed, a 22 year old who survived the attack but was seriously burned, said the bomber blew himself up as a member of the party was leading a recitation of verses from the Quran. ''I only heard the blast and cries and then something hit me and I fell down,'' Waheed told The Associated Press from his hospital bed in Peshawar.

All of Pakistan has been a powderkeg since the assassination of Ms. Bhutto, and nowhere have tensions been higher than in the lawless North West Frontier Province, in the border region with Afghanistan where the remnants of Al Qaeda are thought to ave sought and found safe haven after they were allowed to slip away at Tora Bora. Islamic militants in the region have been somewhat successful in battling government forces and challenging government control.

Because of the worsening violence, parliamentary candidates standing in the February 18 elections have shunned large outdoor rallies, opting to campaign in smaller, more intimate settings held inside the walled compounds of party stalwarts. The television footage of the aftereffects of the blast, the bloodstained clothing, overturned chairs, and the scenes of general chaos that littered the grand meeting hall of a party members sprawling private home drove home the point that even these tightly controlled settings are susceptible to attack by determined terrorists.

In spite of the overt danger, 100,000 members of Ms. Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party defiantly gathered in a sports stadium in Thatta as the party resumed its campaigning following the end of the traditional 40 day mourning period following her death. Her widow, Asif Ali Zardari, vowed in an emotional speech to carry forth his murdered wife's mission, and he beseeched the assembled masses to ''give me strength so that we can serve the country.''

''I have the responsibility to save Pakistan,'' Zardari said. ''This is our country and we have to save it.''

A 24 year old laborer who attended the rally said that the reputation of Mr. Zardari was not very good, but that devotion to Benazir compelled many to to attend the rally. ''We will avenge the blood of Benazir. We don't have bombs. We are not terrorists, but we have political power and we will capitalize on this political power to avenge the death of Benazir,'' said another supporter, Haji Jaffar, 75, a retired teacher. The martyring of Ms. Bhutto has strengthened the resolve of her supporters and shored up the strength of her party.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, approximately 1,500 lawyers attempted Saturday to march to the barricaded home of the Chief Justice of the countries Supreme Court, who was suspended from his position last March by Pervez Mushareff last November in an attempt to control the judiciary which opposed his authoritarian rule. As the lawyers attempted to cross the barbed-wire barricade, hundreds of riot police unleashed tear gas and water cannons, topped off with a baton charge. Although there were no reports of serious injury, several lawyers were roughed up. Earlier Saturday, the countries Bar Council announced that the lawyers nationwide will boycott the courts through election day in an attempt to restore the suspended judges.

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