Radical Pakistani Cleric Threatens Suicide Attacks if His Mosque is Raided

A Pakistani cleric leading a Taliban -style drive against vice in the capital on Friday threatened suicide attacks if the government raided his mosque, and demanded the closure of brothels and video shops within a month.

Maulana Abdul Aziz, speaking to a crowd of about 3,000 people at Islamabad's Red Mosque, also announced the establishment of its own court to enforce Islamic law.

The brazen challenge to state authority comes after his followers earlier this month threatened shopkeepers selling films and music. They also kidnapped an alleged brothel owner and held her for two days until she agreed to make a public confession.

Authorities have taken no action so far against Aziz and the students from the adjoining seminary, raising concern that "Talibanization" is spreading unchecked across Pakistan. Officials say force would only be used against students if negotiations fail.

"If the government says it will launch an operation against us as a last resort, our last resort will be suicide bombings," Aziz told the crowd. Bearded young men from a seminary associated with the Red Mosque punched the air in response.

Aziz then asked the crowd, "What is our way?" and students bellowed back: "Jihad! Jihad!"

Tariq Azim, Pakistan's minister of state for information, denounced Aziz's threat, and urged him not to force the government to take stern action.

"They have misjudged the government's resolve. We want to avoid the use of force against them. We want to resolve all issues through peaceful means," Azim told The Associated Press. He accused the cleric of using female seminary students as a human shield.

Aziz's supporters gathered at the mosque Friday to discuss Sharia and jihad — Islamic law and holy war — before he announced that a Sharia court comprising 10 clerics had been established at Red Mosque to dispense Islamic justice. He said the clerics would issue decrees, but gave no further details about the court's supposed jurisdiction.

Describing the government as "infidels" and "usurpers," he issued a one-month ultimatum for it to shut video shops and brothels in the surrounding area — describing them as "centers of vulgarity" — or his religious students would take action.

"I give a deadline of one month to the government to close brothels and video shops. If the government fails we will take action," Aziz said.

Students then set fire to a pile of hundreds of DVDs, video cassettes and some broken video players on a road outside the mosque — stock from an Islamabad shop whose owner had agreed to close his business, said Aziz's brother, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

"This is porno material and blue films. This is destroying our society," Ghazi said. Crowds shouted, "God is Great!" when the pile of movies, doused in petrol, caught fire with a whoosh.

The DVDs included films from neighboring India and some Western titles, including a romantic comedy called "Dirty, Filthy Love," but also children's movies such as "Home Alone 4" and "Free Willy," which is about a boy befriending a whale.

The mosque, which has a seminary for thousands of female students next door, lies just a few hundred meters (yards) from Islamabad's government district.

Male students with bamboo canes patrolled outside the mosque, and kept watch from corners of its roof. Scores of female students in black burqas looked on from the roof of their neighboring seminary, where Ghazi is vice-principal.

Aziz moved among the crowd in the mosque's courtyard with five bodyguards, masked by scarves.

Hard-line Islamists — who have gained influence by tapping popular opposition to Pakistan's support for Washington's war on terror — have pressed steadily for curbs on "un-Islamic" behavior such as the distribution of Western movies.

Most of the agitation for Taliban-style social controls has been in the conservative northwest, along the Afghan border, where sympathies run high for the fundamentalist Taliban militia that ruled Afghanistan before a U.S.-led invasion in 2001. The Taliban banned TV and largely confined women to their homes.

The move to impose a similar style of restrictions in Islamabad has alarmed many in the relatively liberal city and added to the impression that mosque and its thousands of followers are above the law.

Female student followers of Aziz and his brother are already defying authorities by occupying Islamabad's only library for children.

The burqa-wearing students have also threatened suicide attacks to oppose plans to demolish the mosque for encroaching on government land.