ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The graves of sun-hardened clay, most of their occupants identified by numbered stakes, lie in a cemetery on the edge of the Pakistani capital, a grim presence hovering over Monday's national elections.
The graves hold the remains of 75 people, some of them children, killed in a July army assault on armed militants holding a mosque complex in the city center. The attack has become a defining moment in Pakistan's confrontation with the violent Islamic radicalism fostered by its own military and governments.
The assault ignited a suicide-bombing surge whose victims allegedly included former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. It also inflamed an al Qaida-backed guerrilla war in the northwest that some U.S. military and intelligence officials fear may be pushing nuclear-armed, multi-ethnic Pakistan toward disintegration.
Moreover, the storming of the Red Mosque and the Jamia Hafsa, a school and home to several thousand female students, intensified popular dislike for the man who ordered it, President Pervez Musharraf. And that dislike is translating into projections that the party that backs him will lose the elections, raising fears of massive ballot rigging that could ignite a violent backlash, further undermining the country's stability.
In the violence that marred the last days of campaigning, a suicide bomber on Saturday rammed an explosives-packed car into the headquarters of an independent candidate in Parachinar, the capital of the Kurram tribal agency bordering Afghanistan, and blew it up, killing at least 37 people and injuring 93 others, said Interior Ministry spokesman Iqbal Cheema. The candidate, who was unharmed, is being backed by Bhutto's opposition Pakistan Peoples Party, which is favored to win the most seats.
July's Red Mosque assault was "a watershed," said Ali Hassan of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. "These were poor people and the state went in and crushed them in full public view in the middle of the federal capital. This is one of the things that serves to tarnish and de-legitimatize the Musharraf government."
The government made things worse for itself, analysts said, by rejecting demands for an in-depth inquiry, which stirred suspicions about the credibility of its version of the tragedy. A final death toll is also disputed.
The assault is rarely cited by the news media and opinion polls among the reasons — terrorism, rising prices, fuel shortages, purges of judges and legally dubious constitutional changes — why Musharraf is so unpopular and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q projected to lose if the polls are free and fair.
Yet aftershocks still roil the nation as it girds for the polls.
"I hate the Q League" because of assault, said Mohammad Afraz Abbasi, 35, a fruit seller in the Appara market near the state-owned shrine, which is still universally called the Red Mosque even though the government painted it tan after repairing it.
Opposition candidates have seized on those sentiments. They condemn the operation in their manifestos and use it to hammer Musharraf and the PML-Q in their speeches. It is the theme of songs at rallies and of slideshows shared on mobile telephones showing troops surrounding the complex and students' grieving parents.
In an apparent attempt to defuse that anger, the government appointed the nephew of the two brothers who controlled the mosque, Maulana Amir Siddiq, as its deputy prayer leader late last year after the Supreme Court ordered the mosque to be reopened.
Moreover, Pakistan Muslim League-Q President Chaudhry Sujaat Hussain met last week with the surviving brother, Maulana Abdul Aziz, whose son and elderly mother died in the assault, in an apparent bid to strike a deal for his release from custody before the polls.
But the effort reportedly collapsed when Aziz demanded that the government reopen the mosque's shuttered seminary for men and rebuild the three-story girls' school, which was bulldozed into a flat expanse of dirt and rubble.
"There is no doubt that they (PML-Q) are using this as an election campaign tool in order to get the sympathies of the common uneducated people," Siddiq said in an interview last week in the mosque, around which plainclothes security men could clearly be discerned keeping watch.
Siddiq, a staunch proponent of Islamic rule, insisted the complex was a benign charitable institution that provided religious training, regular education, healthcare, food and housing to thousands of mostly poor male and female students, some of them ignored by the government after being orphaned by a devastating 2006 earthquake.
"There wasn't a single terrorist in this mosque," he said. "If there were any Kalashnikovs, they were licensed weapons."
It's not that most people sympathize with Aziz, who was nabbed fleeing the complex before the assault hidden in a burqa, the head-to-toe covering worn by Muslim women, and his brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who refused to leave and was killed.
Indeed, many believed the government had to do something to stop the brothers as they challenged it for six months by having thousands of male and burqa-clad female students stage protests demanding Islamic law, kidnap suspected prostitutes, torch videotapes and CDs seized from nearby shops and occupy a children's library.
But people remain angry over the blind eye the government turned for years on the mosque, which was patronized by top officials, and alleged links to Osama bin Laden and the jihadi groups that evolved from the guerrillas that Pakistan nurtured with U.S. aid to fight the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Suspicions that the government allowed the four-acre complex to become an armed bastion also stem from its location in the seat of power, close to the fortress-like headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, the military intelligence agency that has been the main sponsor of militant groups.
"People ... have a good sense of justice. They ... understand the manipulation of the jihadi industry, who is benefiting, who are the victims," said Asma Jehangir, the head of the independent Pakistan Human Rights Commission.
People also remain furious with Musharraf's decision to halt negotiations and send in army commandos to end a standoff that began when nine people died in July 3 gun battles between security forces and students, who torched the Environment Ministry.
Many, like Mohammad Esraf Abbasi, secretary of the Appara market traders association, believe it was possible to resolve the siege peacefully, pointing out that more than 1,000 students and others abandoned the complex before the July 10 assault.
"I loved Pervez Musharraf. He took the right decision after 9/11," said Abbasi, referring to Musharraf's cooperation in the Bush administration's fight against al Qaida. "But I have never seen a Muslim military destroy Muslim students and a Muslim mosque and madrassa."
Hundreds of students, many of them women and children who the government insisted were held hostage by dozens of militants, including foreign fighters, were inside the complex when the 36-hour battle began.
Seventy-five bodies were carried out of the smoking ruins to the cemetery on Islamabad's western edge. Orphans and those whose families can't afford gravestones are identified by numbered stakes corresponding with names in an official registry.
The government put the final death toll for the entire standoff at 102, including 11 security forces. But Musharraf's refusal to hold a full-blown inquiry stoked widespread disbelief about the official version and sparked wild casualty estimates soaring to the thousands.
The graveyard, meanwhile, appears to have acquired shrine-like status for former Red Mosque students.
Former seminarians "are here every day," said Niaz Mohammad, as he and three other teenage former students stood by a row of graves one day last week. "We come here ... for our hearts. Still we are sad. Still we are angry with the government."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008