ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A vicious campaign of violence against the Pakistani military, a strategic U.S. ally, escalated Sunday as a round of suicide bombings killed at least 36 soldiers and police recruits, and wounded more than 95 in a region regarded as an al Qaida and Taliban safe haven.
The attacks brought the weekend's death toll to 60 soldiers and recruits, and more than 120 wounded in a series of strikes unleashed by militants in tribal areas close to Afghanistan. And as the latest bodies were counted, militants announced that they were backing out of a truce with the Pakistani government.
The bloodshed comes at a time of great uncertainty in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation with border areas that, according to U.S. intelligence reports, function as operational bases for al Qaida. Though there are few signs of widespread revolt - most Pakistanis are ethnically distinct from the tribes on the border, and are far more moderate - the unrest worries many in Washington, which depends on President Pervez Musharraf to help curb radical elements in a country that has become a focal point of global Islamic radicalism.
In the past week, Musharraf has shifted thousands of Pakistani troops to the Afghan border, a lawless stretch of mountains and small towns that are thought to be sanctuary for Osama bin Laden and other senior al Qaida and Taliban leaders. It is not clear, though, whether the build-up is for a large scale operation or simply to add enough troops to maintain stability.
The answer, many Pakistani analysts said, could have a significant impact on the future of the country. A massive military strike might enflame militants and lead to further destabilization in a nation beset in the last two months by riots and demonstrations following Musharraf's suspension of the chief justice of the supreme court, and a government raid of an Islamabad mosque.
"On the television they are showing 130-millimeter (artillery) guns being moved as if they are going to fight a war," said Mirza Aslam Beg, a retired general and chief of Pakistan's military from 1988 to 1991. "The situation is very serious."
In America, National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said on a round of Sunday morning talk shows that the Bush administration has pushed for more robust action.
"These extremists, these Taliban are a threat to him (Musharraf) and to us. And he has taken action against them," Hadley said. "But the action has, at this point, not been adequate, not effective."
Hadley continued: "He's doing more. We are urging him to do more, and we're providing full support to what he's contemplating."
Against that backdrop, a Taliban council in the hotbed border region of Pakistan's North Waziristan region issued a statement Sunday saying that it was withdrawing from a controversial peace deal with Musharraf's government. The agreement, struck last September, had guaranteed that Pakistani troops would leave checkpoints in the area if local tribal members and militants agreed to not attack Pakistani security forces and to stop harboring foreign fighters such as those loyal to al Qaida.
"The Taliban signed the peace agreement with the government to ensure the safety of the lives and property of the people," the statement said. "Now, we have decided to end the deal for the sake of the people."
As that statement was being circulated, an undated video clip of Osama bin Laden surfaced on the Internet Sunday. Though it was not possible to know if the timing was meant to coincide with the upheaval in Pakistan, its message seemed to fit well with the weekend's attacks.
Wearing army fatigues, bin Laden praised those who gave their lives in the fight against the West and its allies.
"The happy (man) is the one that God has chosen to be a martyr," he said.
There are indications that a recent Pakistani military operation against an Islamabad mosque fueled the attacks this weekend.
A commando operation last week at a mosque – Lal Masjid, or the Red Mosque - in Pakistan’s capital killed at least 86 civilians and troops during heavy fighting.
In the aftermath of the battle, Maulana Fazlullah, a rebel cleric in the country's North West Frontier Province, called for jihad against Musharraf's government.
Both attacks on Sunday occurred there. The first came in the morning when two cars packed with explosives rammed an army convoy - 11 soldiers and six civilians were killed, and 40 security personnel were wounded, according to the local deputy district police chief.
During the afternoon, a suicide bomber in a Frontier Province district to the south ripped through a crowd of police recruits, killing 13 policemen and 12 recruits, and wounding 56, according to the district's deputy inspector general of police.
The day before, a suicide car bomber hit a paramilitary convoy in North Waziristan, which sits adjacent to the Frontier Province, killing 24 people and injuring at least 29.
Military officials would not say whether they saw a direct link between the attacks and threats of revenge that followed the Lal Masjid operation.
"It's become necessary for him (Musharraf) to move his troops out there to prevent serious damage," said Kamal Matinuddin, a retired lieutenant general who spent 34 years in Pakistan's military, and now works for a prominent Islamabad think tank.
Musharraf has been under tremendous pressure from U.S. officials to do just that. An American intelligence assessment released on Wednesday found that top al Qaida leadership has used Pakistan's border provinces to regroup and plan future attacks.
On Thursday evening, Musharraf said in a televised address that his forces would move soon to contain radical Islamists in his country.
Maj. Gen. Waheed Arshad, a top Pakistani military spokesman, reiterated that sentiment on Sunday. "It's obvious the terrorists and extremist elements are trying to start a law and order disturbance out there," he said. "The government is trying to root (them) out."
But some in Islamabad are concerned that a military onslaught pitting Pakistani troops against Pakistani militants, and foreign fighters under their protection, could backfire.
The specter of Pakistani troops opening fire in villages might further split the government – already beset by the supreme court chief justice and Lal Masjid problems - from its people and risk unrest, said several analysts.
"If the Americans want our government to … use even more force, then I think they don't understand the domestic situation in this country," said Matinuddin, the retired general. "If we kill too many people using aircraft and missiles there will be a strong reaction."
Beg, the former chief of Pakistan's military, agreed.
"They (the Pakistani army) will create more enemies," he said, "and that will lead to defeat."
Special Correspondent Shafiq Ahmad contributed from Peshawar.