ISLAMABAD – Supporters of a popular moderate cleric mourned his assassination in one of several suicide bombings for which the Taliban claimed responsibility Saturday to retaliate for a Pakistani military offensive against extremists.
But instead of sowing fear and dissension, the attacks appear to be contributing to a growing wave of anti-Taliban sentiment, particularly the bombing at a seminary Friday that killed Sarfraz Naeemi. The cleric had called the militants murderers, condemned suicide attacks as un-Islamic and backed the ongoing operations in the Swat Valley region.
His death sparked a general strike that virtually shut down Karachi, the country's commerical center. About 200 activists of Jamat Ahle Sunnat, a moderate Muslim sect, staged a mock funeral procession for the Taliban, burning one in effigy as they chanted "Down with the Taliban; Taliban, the enemy of Islam; death for the killers of Sarfraz Naeemi."
In Lahore, where the bombing killed Naeemi and six other people, thousands gathered under tight security for his funeral, surging forward to try to touch his casket as pall bearers carried it to a crypt where it was sealed and covered with rose petals. The protesters demanded death for the Taliban and their leader, Baitullah Mehsud.
"We have no doubts that Taliban have killed our leader," said Mohammad Arif, 35, a former Naeemi student who now works as a prayer leader in a mosque in a middle-class neighborhood.
"Our demand to the government is that they should kill each and every Taliban. We demand that their chief Baitullah Mehsud should be arrested and hanged in public. This is the only option to save this country."
The protest carried a distinct anti-American flavor, with some demonstrators carrying placards claiming the Taliban are U.S. agents aiming to disrupt Pakistan — a claim that Naeemi had made.
President Asif Ali Zardari earlier addressed the nation and vowed to continue fighting the Taliban "until the end," calling it a battle for Pakistan's survival.
Later, Parliament approved the budget for the new fiscal year, with a 16 percent increase in the military's allocation.
"The war on terror has already cost us over $35 billion since 2001-02," said Hina Rabbani Khar, the junior finance minister. "We now face the prospect of incurring huge costs on account of counterinsurgency expenditures."
The government also allocated $620 million to help almost 2.5 million people who Khar said have been displaced as a result of the insurgency. Helping the refugees is a critical issue to avoid anti-government anger.
Taliban militants have unleashed a battery of suicide attacks since Pakistan launched the Swat offensive in the volatile northwest.
The bombing that killed Naeemi happened within minutes of a similar attack at a mosque used by troops in the northwestern city of Nowshera that killed at least four and wounded 100. Those took the count of suicide bombings to five in eight days, including a huge blast at the luxury Pearl Continental Hotel in nearby Peshawar that killed nine people, including U.N. workers.
Taliban commander Saeed Hafiz claimed responsibility for the blasts at the seminary, hotel and in Nowshera on behalf of Tehrik-i-Taliban, the group headed by Mehsud, local media reported.
Naeemi's son, Raghib, filed a criminal complaint Saturday accusing Mehsud of murder, conspiracy and terrorism, saying his father had received threats for his outspoken views.
"Baitullah Mehsud is responsible for planning and motivating the attack that killed my father," police official Sohail Sukhera quoted the complaint as saying.
In his address early Saturday, Zardari said Pakistan was "fighting a war with those who want to impose their agenda on this nation with force and power."
"These people murdered thousands of innocent people. By spreading terror in Pakistan and by scaring people, they want to take over the institutions of Pakistan. They do everything in the name of Islam, but they do not have anything to do with Islam. They are terrorists."
In Washington, U.S. defense officials said Friday that Pakistan was planning a new assault into the lawless tribal district of South Waziristan, where senior al-Qaida and Taliban leaders are believed to have strongholds.
Pakistan has announced no such offensive but has shelled and dropped bombs on suspected militant strongholds in the region in recent days, saying it is responding to militant attacks.
The U.S. officials said the initial phases of the offensive had already begun, but offered no timeframe. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the operation has not been announced.
On Saturday, Pakistani jet fighters dropped bombs on suspected Taliban hide-outs in three villages in South Waziristan, killing at least 15 insurgents and wounding many others, two local intelligence officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Military analysts say any fight in the Waziristan regions would be much tougher than the Swat operation because the Taliban are more entrenched and battle-hardened from fighting in Afghanistan. They also say Pakistan may want to deal with more than 2 million internal refugees from the Swat offensive before opening a new front.