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In Peshawar, denial over deadly Taliban tactics

Many people in the Pakistani city of Peshawar blame "foreign hands," not the Taliban, for last week's heinous market bombing.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When terrorists last week blew up the Mina Bazaar, a market for women and children, they detonated a car bomb so powerful it left more than 100 people dead and 15 missing in a nightmarish scene of scattered limbs, charred corpses and victims trapped alive under mounds of debris.

The bombing crossed a new line of callousness, uniting Peshawar in grief and fear and unleashing a tide of anger. But most of the outrage expressed by survivors, witnesses, religious leaders and other residents this week was not directed at Islamist extremist groups, whom the government has blamed for the attack, but at the countries many Pakistanis see as their true enemies: India, Israel and the United States.

In part, this reaction stems from a deep popular conviction that no Muslim could perpetrate such atrocities against other Muslims. The more egregious the attack, the stronger seems the tendency to deny a domestic cause and blame other, more remote culprits. Some religious and political groups are encouraging such responses, eager to whip up xenophobic sentiment for their own ends.

This week, the influential Jamaat-e-Islami religious party organized a "peace march" in central Peshawar from the Khyber Bazaar, where a car bomb killed more than 30 people Oct. 9, to the Mina Bazaar. The marchers held up banners and shouted slogans denouncing the CIA, the Pentagon, the security company formerly known as Blackwater, U.S. drone attacks and American aid. There was no mention of the Taliban or al-Qaeda.

"Muslims! Muslims! We are here to protest against those wrongdoers who work for India, Israel and the United States," a well-dressed, middle-aged rally organizer shouted through a bullhorn. "We protest against American interference and against our government, which is handing over Pakistan to the foreigners and the unbelievers."

Spokesmen for the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda denied responsibility for the Mina Bazaar blast, saying they condemned the killing of innocents. But Pakistani and U.S. officials say the recent wave of bombings has been in direct retaliation for an ongoing army operation against Taliban tribal sanctuaries in the northwest border region of South Waziristan that began about one month ago.

Militants have also gone after a range of targets in other Pakistani cities, striking at an Islamic university and a U.N. compound in Islamabad, army facilities in Rawalpindi and police academies in Lahore. The widening terrorist scourge has increased public antipathy for the militants, solidified support for the military crackdown and turned the capital into a virtual garrison city, with riot police and traffic checks every few blocks.

Opinion polls have shown that most Pakistanis regard al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a threat. Yet Pakistanis, always sensitive to foreign intrusion, are volubly unhappy about the air strikes by U.S. unmanned planes that have been targeting al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, sometimes killing civilians. When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Pakistan recently, audiences grilled her about the drone attacks, the ongoing U.S. Embassy expansion and persistent rumors that private U.S. security contractors are prowling Pakistan in search of its nuclear arsenal.

A city under siege
In Peshawar, which borders the tribal belt, the spillover from the South Waziristan conflict has been especially grim. Since the army operation began, more than 250 people have been killed here in half a dozen bombings at restaurants, mosques, army facilities and busy markets.

The attacks have changed the way of life in this ancient, unhurried city near the Afghan border. For generations, it has been a world of plodding donkeys, creaking horse carts, shaded religious shrines and twisting alleys of tiny shops, where bargaining is often a leisurely ritual over bowls of green tea.

Now, no one lingers. A wave of bombings in the past month, culminating in the deadliest blast yet at the bustling market Oct. 28, has sent a jolt of panic through the city of 2 million. Police search cars and then hustle drivers on their way. Shoppers grab their purchases and go. Mosques empty quickly after prayers, and tea stalls have few customers.

"Our life will never be the same," said Bahkt Lal, 26, whose family has owned a restaurant near the Mina Bazaar since 1920. He was cooking lunch when the bomb exploded and the building he was in collapsed. His brother was crushed to death, and Lal was hit on the head. "At night I still think the walls are falling on me," he said. "No one knows when the next attack will come. I am afraid to sit inside or go out."

Unswayed by evidence
Yet as workers continued sifting through the rubble of the Mina Bazaar this week, spewing clouds of plaster dust, shopkeepers and survivors alike insisted that foreign hands were behind the attack.

Shah Zamin, 35, who sells bales of raw cotton, said the stall ignited when the bomb exploded, engulfing his brother in flames. "I tried to save him, but his body was too hot to touch. He fell and died in front of me," Zamin said, grimacing at the memory. "I am certain that the Taliban would never do this terrible thing. It must be the foreigners, who want to give a bad name to Islam."

There was ample evidence, however, that the attackers had an Islamic fundamentalist agenda of keeping women in seclusion. Merchants sweeping out broken glass from women's clothing and sundry shops said unsigned posters had appeared in the bazaar shortly before the bombing, warning them not to sell cosmetics or display female mannequins.

Several miles away, in a rustic cemetery surrounding the historical Rahman Baba shrine, the bodies of a dozen women and children from the blast lay buried under new mounds of earth, some decorated with tinsel hearts or tiny plants. Gravediggers said they had never had to perform such grisly duty.

"They brought us bags with arms and legs, bodies burned so badly no one could identify them," said Fauji, 45, a graveyard tender. The message asked mourners not to weep but to recite from the Koran. "This is the worst thing I have ever seen," Fauji said. "It must have been the work of foreign hands."