Radical Cleric Returns to the Red Mosque

The radical cleric of a mosque that Pakistani authorities say harbored suicide bombers returned for the first time Friday in almost two years, calling for the extension of Islamic law throughout Pakistan.

Abdul Aziz, released on bail yesterday following his July 2007 arrest, told some 10,000 followers during Friday prayers that the Islamic law recently imposed by the government on parts of northwest Pakistan was a direct consequence of efforts made by his mosque.

"What we have seen in Swat and the tribal areas is the result of the sacrifices at the Red Mosque, the students, the people who were martyred," Aziz said, referring to the July 2007 standoff between the government and the mosque's followers that killed around 100 people.

"I tell you that you should be ready to make sacrifices for Islam. The day is not far away when Islam will be enforced in the whole of the country," said Aziz.

The United States is worried that the imposition of Islamic law, or sharia, on approximately a third of the North West Frontier Province will give the Taliban and its allies safe havens from which to launch attacks.

Aziz hinted that if his efforts to spread sharia were opposed, he could resort to violence.

"We are peaceful people but if our way is blocked," he said, "then you have witnessed the scenes in Swat and in FATA," a reference to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in which militants have been fighting with the military on and off since 9/11.

The siege of the Lal Mosque in July 2007 was a turning point for Pakistan, after which the Taliban launched one of the most violent campaigns in the country's history. That campaign has once again intensified in the last few months. Today Pakistan's Interior Ministry said 1,842 terrorist incidents had occurred Pakistan since January 2008, an average of five per day. The ministry did not detail exactly what was included in the tally.

Aziz, arrested just before the siege while trying to escape the mosque in a burqa, was released on Thursday after making a deal with the government, according to Ijaz ul Haq, the former Minister for Religious Affairs and Minorities. Ul Haq, who has appeared publicly alongside Aziz, was a member of the negotiating team that failed to prevent the siege.

Controversial Mosque Has Long Been Home of Fundamentalism in Islamabad

Aziz's mosque, located in the heart of Islamabad, has long been the home of fundamentalism in Islamabad. In the days leading up to the siege, well-armed students from the female and male religious schools attached to the mosque kidnapped police officers and women they accused of running a brothel.

After the students refused to surrender, army commandoes attacked the complex, fighting gunbattles that killed journalists, passers-by, and included the use of phosphorous by the Pakistani military. Aziz's younger brother was killed in the crossfire.

Many here are worried that Aziz will try to take revenge and model himself on Sufi Muhammad, the once-jailed militant leader who helped negotiate with the Taliban in Swat. There, the Taliban has manipulated a traditional form of sharia, which is focused mainly on speedy court decisions, in order to install their own form of justice, including the public whipping of a 16-year-old girl who refused to marry a militant.

Indeed, ul-Haq himself doubted Aziz's intentions and he criticized the government's decision to release him.

"He's very closely linked with the people in Swat. And he's getting his inspiration from the same people who are working in Swat," Ul Haq told ABC News. "With the extremism currently in the country, they couldn't afford to let another cat out of the bag."

Followers Say They Oppose Taliban Sharia

A handful of Aziz's followers, interviewed as they left the mosque following Friday prayers, all said they opposed the Taliban's form of Sharia and instead wanted the "pure" form of Sharia, advocated by the prophet Muhammad.

"We don't want the Taliban sharia," Habibullah Korai told ABC News. "If the government wants to apply sharia, it will be the best for the world. It will make the world peaceful."

But the question remains how far Aziz will go to spread sharia throughout the country.

"If you talk about sharia in Pakistan, or any majority Muslim area, then the people then support it. And that is why they want to raise such slogans," Ul Haq said, referring to radical clerics like Aziz. "And in the garb of these slogans, they will pursue their own agenda."

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