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Risk and reward for Pervez

Islamabad, July 11: The warren-like Lal Masjid complex was cleared of all die-hard defenders this evening, the focus shifting to the number of civilian casualties and the public mood.

Many questions were unanswered, including the final death toll and whether any women or children had been killed. Several parents are still looking for their children.

“The first phase of the operation is over. There are no more militants left inside,” Pakistan Army spokesperson Waheed Arshad said.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said no bodies of women and children had been found inside the complex, adding that such a probability was low. “The major group of women was all together and came out all together,” he said.

More than 73 militants and 10 soldiers were killed during the final, 35-hour assault by the elite Special Services Group, the army said. The dead included the mosque’s pro-Taliban cleric, Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

If the final clearing operation does not throw up bodies of women and children and the official machinery succeeds in fending off charges of a cover-up, President Pervez Musharraf, going through the worst patch of a roller-coaster eight years in power, can afford to breathe easy.

The raid is certain to deepen radicals’ hatred for Musharraf, raising the prospect of surging violence. But the use of the famed mosque as a militant bunker may sap support for extremism and strengthen the President.

Barring the mutinous North West Frontier Province, protests have not broken out in too many areas. The absence of an immediate public backlash was in sharp contrast with the street riots that erupted when the chief justice was removed in March.

The mosque assault diverted attention from the judge’s ouster, which has spawned a broader pro-democracy movement.

The Opposition also appeared to be softening. Benazir Bhutto, tipped by some to return from exile and join Musharraf in a power-sharing deal after year-end general elections, backed the assault.

The man on the street — at least in urban areas — and the liberal media are sympathetic to the compulsions behind the raid. “The operation had become inevitable,” said Haider Abbas, a chartered accountant in Islamabad.

Political commentators have started wondering whether the muted response suggests a little-noticed moderation of the Pakistani society.

But the Friday test — pent-up anger has often exploded after prayers — is looming large and Musharraf is preparing to address the nation possibly tomorrow. ( )

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