ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A week ago, Lal Masjid, the "Red Mosque," seemed a relatively small feature in the landscape of President Pervez Musharraf's troubles, a radical place that preached jihad but without a broad constituency in the nation's capital.
A gun battle Tuesday between Lal Masjid members and local police changed all that. After an afternoon of young men squeezing off AK-47 fire at police positions, paramilitary units were called in to establish a cordon that's squeezed tighter day by day.
On Thursday, with at least 16 reportedly dead from both sides, there were loud explosions at the mosque and news that Pakistani forces had blasted a hole in an outer wall, a breaching technique that often precedes troops storming a building. Attack helicopters swooped low from the horizon.
At nightfall, government troops surrounded the mosque, with fears of a bloody showdown hanging in the air. Hundreds of people — up to 800 by some accounts, including women and children — are inside.
Musharraf's political fate, and perhaps the direction of the nation, could hinge on how well or how badly the situation goes.
An orderly resolution could give Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the region, enough breathing room to turn back to his major problems: the takeover of border areas by Taliban-style Islamists and a political crisis surrounding his removal of the Supreme Court's chief justice.
Musharraf's restraint so far suggests that the situation might be resolved without the chaos that occurred when Russian forces recaptured a school in Beslan from Chechen extremists in 2004 and hundreds died. More than a thousand followers already have fled the mosque grounds and its leader, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was captured while trying to escape in a burqa.
Government troops appear to be moving cautiously. Pitched battle between Pakistani soldiers and young men and women — resulting in images of dead bodies in a mosque being broadcast across the nation — could be just the sort of symbol that galvanizes the formidable array of factions that oppose the president.
But the Red Mosque, named for the hue of its outer walls, is already a symbol — of government weakness in the face of direct challenge by clergy who claim the right to authorize attacks on government officials.
On two occasions earlier this year, members of the mosque kidnapped Pakistani police officers to protest the detention of students and teachers from the mosque's religious schools, known as madrassas. Things calmed after the officers were released, but not before Lal Masjid officials threatened to launch a wave of suicide bombers if Musharraf's forces moved in to rescue the hostages. There have been similar threats this week.
Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a senior cleric at Lal Masjid, courted the news media on a regular basis during the past several months, seemingly taunting Musharraf, whose office is just a short drive away.
"We want to abolish the system. An Islamic system should be enforced," Ghazi said recently, reclining against a cushion on the floor of a small building on the mosque grounds as a group of men sat outside with AK-47 rifles. "There comes a point when people stand up, when they rise up against the system. And that is the point we are at now."
Ghazi spoke knowing that Musharraf is a man besieged, on one side by liberal parties and on the other radical mullahs.
Much of Pakistan's border with Afghanistan is open to a hornet's nest of Taliban and al Qaida fighters, a challenge to Musharraf's authority that he's been unable or unwilling to answer.
He's also recently faced a wave of protests, stacked with tens of thousands of relatively liberal backers of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, whom he suspended and tried to force to resign.
And the longer Musharraf looks troubled, the more likely it is that his support base among the nation's military — an institution with a long history of coups, including the one that installed him in 1999 — will begin to weaken.
The outcome will have deep implications for U.S. standing in Pakistan, which is in an area awash with American interests. Pakistan's borders touch Iran, with which Washington is in a showdown over Iran's nuclear program; Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are embroiled in a counterinsurgency campaign; China, a rising great power; and India, one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
While many U.S. officials mistrust Musharraf and voice disappointment in his failure to crush Taliban commanders and al Qaida terrorists who are using Pakistan's tribal areas as base camps, the Bush administration considers him a man America can work with.
That, in a nuclear-armed nation where Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar may be hiding, is no small matter.
Opposition politicians charge that the United States is selling out democratic principles in favor of a military strongman who'll back its strategic plans in the region. They contend that U.S. support of Musharraf is only creating more terrorists.
Musharraf began to lose his footing in March, when his suspension of the chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, didn't go as smoothly as planned.
Lawyers protested against Musharraf in the streets. Chaudhry — a solemn-looking man with a heavy mustache who's given to painstaking oratories on the rule of law — went on tours across the country, accompanied by thousands of supporters on the roadsides who threw rose petals at his slow-moving caravan.
Asked why Musharraf would think he could brush aside the head of the Supreme Court, Syeda Abida Hussain, Pakistan's ambassador to the United States from 1991 to 1993 and then a Cabinet member, waved her hand and laughed.
The general, she said, is drunk on American power.
"It's the endgame for Musharraf," she said, "whether the Americans want it or not."
The Americans are playing it cautiously. On a recent visit, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher and Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte called for free and open elections. But they stopped short of asking that Musharraf step down as the military chief — saying it was up to him to decide — a position that would allow him to declare martial law before elections.
Some in Islamabad took that to be tantamount to endorsing Musharraf's continued reign as a military ruler.
Syed Kabir Ali Wasti, a vice president in Musharraf's political party, said Boucher and Negroponte came to assess the level of support that Musharraf had in the government.
"They are very much concerned that after the elections the government should be able to deliver, to be able to work with the armed forces in Pakistan," Wasti said. "There should be an understanding, we think, that if Musharraf takes off his uniform all the parties will support him; then he would win the elections and there will be no turmoil."
A round of interviews in a poor, ramshackle suburb of Islamabad suggested otherwise. While the bakers, day laborers and fruit vendors had different ideas about the government they wanted — from conservative Islamic clerical rule to quasi-socialism — most agreed that Musharraf was no longer an option.
"If Musharraf doesn't go, the lesson will be 'might is right,' " said Munnawar Ali, a welder whose clothes were streaked with black grime and dirt, "and there will be no calm."