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Food stalls just before iftar at the Melody bazaar, where vendors says business has dropped since the bombing of the nearby Marriott hotel.
Food stalls just before iftar at the Melody bazaar, where vendors says business has dropped since the bombing of the nearby Marriott hotel.

Everyone is blamed for nation's dirty war

Suspicion over the the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad stirs up questions in tea shops and bazaars.

In Pakistan's tea-shops and bazaars, do not expect a sudden wave of support for going after militants in the wake of the deadly lorry bomb attack on Islamabad's Marriott Hotel. Popular opposition to what is still seen as the United States's war runs strong, and plenty of the bazaar-wallah talk is sceptical of any militant role in the Sept 20 attack. "This is an international conspiracy against Pakistan, to portray Muslims as terrorists," said Abdullah, a Balti foodstall vendor in the Melody bazaar a few blocks from the Marriott. "Muslims are not permitted to kill a sparrow. So how can a pious Muslim kill even one person? Perhaps certain regional powers - like India - are trying to create a wedge between Pakistan and the US." Sitting cross-legged next to suspended mutton cadavers at Sabir's Tikka and Karahi stall, Rashid gestures to the near-empty plaza. "Before the attack we were so busy at iftar that we could barely swallow two dates to break our own fast. Now hardly anyone is coming. This is America's war. Pakistan should have nothing to do with it." Islamabad's first civilian government in nine years is desperate to sell the war on terror as "Pakistan's war". It is trying to counter deep perceptions that the country has been dragged into America's fight and is sacrificing its civilians and soldiers to do Washington's dirty work. Already potent anti-US feelings were inflamed by a deadly raid by US ground forces on a village house on tribal areas bordering Afghanistan on Sept 3, and repeated missile strikes by unmanned US drones. "Guns offer no solution," said Abdullah. "Pakistan and all stakeholders must involve militants in negotiations. There is no answer through the barrel of a gun." "Military operations are entirely against Pakistan's interests. Look at what's happened in recent months," said a kebab server in the same bazaar, referring to a bloody chain of suicide attacks across the country. "Business is dropping. We are not earning. This whole war is against the interests of poor people on daily wages." At a dim-lit teastall between gloomy concrete buildings, a university student and seminary headmaster lamented the end of peace in the hill-ringed capital. "Whoever did this wanted to humiliate Pakistan and destabilise the peace in Islamabad. Islamabad was the most peaceful place in Pakistan. Now it has become another victim," said Shabir, a political science undergraduate. "Enemies of Pakistan are behind this. Foreign involvement must be there, regional powers who are not friends of Pakistan, accompanied by insiders." Officials have pointed to Taliban fighters in the tribal areas as the likely perpetrators of the attack, but have cited no evidence and made no significant arrests. A group calling itself Fedayeen of Islam claimed responsibility, but the group has not been known previously. Said Mohammad Abbas Abid, who chairs an association of religious scholars and runs a nearby madrasa: "This is most likely the work of India or America. Maybe it's a response to the recent bombings in Delhi." Mr Abid favoured action against militants, but without US involvement. "The government should identify militants' hideouts and their supporters and go after them, with the help of local stakeholders only." The suicide attacker struck as Pakistanis gathered in the hotel's restaurants and banquet halls to break their Ramadan fast. The Marriott was predominantly a gathering place for Pakistani families, businessmen and politicians. It attracted a sprinkling of foreigners. The majority of the 53 people killed were Pakistani hotel staff on meagre wages. Five foreigners were among the dead, and 11 were among the 260-plus injured. "Now it has become our war. We didn't ask for it. This all a result of [former president Pervez ] Musharraf's wrong policies," said Imran, a soft-drink vendor. "Since using force, the whole country has become insecure," said a government employee. "The tragedy is that common people - women, old people, children - are getting killed because of this war on terror." Added his companion: "The saddest thing is that America is killing our civilians, the Pakistan army is killing our civilians, militants are killing our civilians. Three different forces are killing our civilians. Maybe Americans are behind this bombing. America doesn't want to see a stable Pakistan." Ayesha Siddiqa, an analyst, said public opinion was sharply divided. "It's wrong to call this Pakistan's '9-11'. In the US, 9-11 brought people together. This has divided Pakistan even further," she said. "There are quite a number of people who believe this happened because of our involvement with the US. There are even people suggesting that America was behind the attack. Then there are the 'liberal Bolsheviks', as opposed to the fundamentalist Bolsheviks, who believe there is a threat from the Taliban and therefore it is our war." At an upmarket Lahore cafe, a western-educated agriculturalist said he had no doubt US forces had masterminded the Marriott attack. "They needed this to get consensus for their unilateral strikes on our tribal areas, especially as the US elections approach," he said. "What people outside don't realise is that it's not just fundamentalists who are anti-US," Ms Siddiqa said. "It's fairly secular people who are also anti-US." bcurran@thenational.ae

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