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by Zofeen Ebrahim

Pakistan Outrage Over Judge's Firing Adds Domestic Crisis to Musharraf's Woes

(IPS) KARACHI -- "Pervez Musharraf should apologize to the nation for what happened in Karachi," says a fragile, 81-year-old Yusufali, angrily referring to a rash of ethnic violence which left 45 people dead and more than 150 others injured over the weekend.

"Nobody is buying his (President Musharraf's) rhetoric of shedding 'tears of blood.' If he were so overcome with grief, he should have called off the celebratory pro-government rally held in Islamabad held in his honor, and instead flown to Karachi and taken things in hand." Yusufali's sentiments seem to be echoed by many ordinary Pakistanis.

"The callous inaction of law enforcement authorities in the face of extensive violence can either be explained as government incompetence or complicity," said Ali Dayan Hasan, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "In either case, this is a dark day for civil and political liberties in Pakistan."

"There seemed to be no government, no administration and no social existence. Karachi just appeared to be a piece of land where the rule of the jungle was operative," summed up Syed Talat Hussain, news director of Aaj TV, a private news channel, speaking with IPS. "This is just a taste of what is yet to come. It has only started," he warned.

Hussain was inclined to lay blame at the door of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the political party that rules Sindh province of which Karachi is capital. "With the MQM as the only party to hold its meeting, it appears that the Karachi incidents have created a situation of the MQM versus all opposition parties. A fascist party like that can be lethal on its own, but when it is backed by the establishment in Islamabad, it is double jeopardy," he said.

The MQM is largely backed by 'Mohajirs' or Urdu-speaking settlers who flocked to Karachi from northern India following the 1947 partition of India along religious lines. There has since been a long history of violent conflict in Karachi between the settlers and Pashtuns who are loyal to the Awami National Party.

Politically, the MQM is opposed to the Pakistan People's Party, led by Benazir Bhutto, currently living in exile. Like Bhutto, the MQM's leader Altaf Hussein is also based in Britain.

Many saw in the weekend violence a reminder of the bloody ethnic feuds that erupted in Karachi in 1986 and smouldered on for almost a decade.

The latest outbreak of violence was not entirely unexpected. The ethnic tinderbox that is Karachi went up in flames as Pakistan's suspended chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, arrived in the city to address a lawyer's convention at the Sindh High Court.

Observers sensed trouble when the MQM, an ally of President Musharraf since 2002, decided to hold a rally in the city on the same day. Neither side would back down and bloodshed followed.

The suspension of Chaudhry as the country's chief justice by Musharraf, on Mar. 9, was followed initially by peaceful protests confined to the legal fraternity and civil society organizations. But given the political alignments in an election year Chaudhry's cause became a rallying point and events soon snowballed into a larger movement against army rule under Musharraf.

On May 5, Chaudhry addressed a mass rally in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. A four-hour journey by road took him 26 hours with people gathering along the highway to welcome him.

In Karachi, Chaudhry could not move out of the airport as all roads leading to the Sindh High Court had been blocked the previous night. Refusing the government's offer to fly him to the court premises via helicopter, he took a plane back to Islamabad, leaving carnage and mayhem behind as his supporters and those of Musharraf fought pitched battles on the streets.

Musharraf publicly blamed Chaudhry and the opposition parties for organizing meetings in Karachi while the MQM was holding a rally there.

Aaj TV channel came in the line of fire when clashes between the two ethnic groups began. "We were showing live footage of the ongoing battle and that angered the mob and they began to attack us," said Hussain. Police help was sought after bullets were sprayed on their building and cars in the parking lot set ablaze. "But despite repeated assurances, the first police contingent came six hours late," Hussain said.

The whole nation was a helpless witness to what was happening on the streets of Karachi as private TV channels aired footage of ordinary people finding cover under cars and injured people crying for help. One channel even showed a man dying of his wounds with ambulances unable to make their way through.

What was equally surprising were the hoards of sophisticated arms that appeared on the streets wielded by young men who ignored warnings by a government spokesman broadcast over the TV channels: "We will not let anyone take the law into their hands."

Many saw in the events a repeat of the violence in the 1980s when the late military dictator Zia-ul-Haq used the MQM to remain in power. Now, Musharraf embroiled in crisis after crisis and having clearly lost popular support is seeking to cling on to power by using the MQM as a prop.

His recent peace offerings to Benazir Bhutto of PPP, the largest single political party, observers say, may have been soured by the recent events in Karachi and thus his need to fall back on MQM. But the MQM has always wanted to be the sole power broker in Karachi and has always been ready to resort to violence to keep things that way. "Peace in Karachi means a smaller vote bank for the MQM," said an observer.

But the MQM may not have things entirely its way even if backed by the government. It has two battles on hand -- one against the Pashtun ANP party and the other against the PPP which is well-enternched in the rural areas.

"Once the Pashtun join forces with their tribal religious parties and groups in the Frontier and the Balochistan provinces, there will be no withdrawing. Even the MQM will not know what hit them because only the former have the zeal to produce suicide bombers" said one analyst requesting anonymity.

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Albion Monitor   May 14, 2007   (

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