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Musharraf gestures at a news conference on Friday in Islamabad

Musharraf Admits He Was Soft on Jihadis Since 2002

Special SAT Report

RAWALPINDI, July 31: General Pervez Musharraf explained to the world media on Friday why he had not taken form action against the Jihadis since 2002 and conceded that if he had gone all out against them, "one million Taliban would have stormed Pakistan's streets and our boat may have capsized."

Musharraf told foreign journalists in Rawalpindi he did not have “a free hand” in 2002 because of an unstable economy, the confrontation with India over Kashmir and insufficient international support for his presidency.

He also believes he is in a stronger position to campaign against religious militants than during a limited crackdown in 2002. “I’m in a totally different environment,” Musharraf said on Friday. "Today I am very strong. We need to act against the bigwigs of all the extremist organizations,” Musharraf said. “We are not going as fast as I would like to go.”

“Maybe the boat would have capsized” if the Government had pursued domestic militants more aggressively in 2002, he said. “We took action, but there were restraining factors."

In response to specific questions on the difference between the crackdown he had ordered in 2002 and now, Gen. Musharraf said the world and media should not judge the performance of his Government through the eyes of the past. "Today, it is a totally different environment", he quipped.

Elaborating on the point, Gen. Musharraf said three years ago, the economic situation of Pakistan was not stable. Besides, he did not enjoy the confidence of the world as a military ruler and his country was engaged in a 10-month military standoff with India.

"If I had operated strongly (against fundamentalists) the boat would have capsized". When a western journalist asked why he was not serious in his earlier attempt to curb militancy, Gen. Musharraf retorted, "You have to be realistic and take cognizance of the ground situation. By taking stringent action against fundamentalists, I would have risked the prospect of a million Talibans on the streets of Pakistan".

Musharraf said all the estimated 1,400 foreign nationals studying in the country's madrassas would have to leave the Islamic seminaries. "All foreigners are to be removed" from Pakistan's more than 10,000 Koranic schools, said Musharraf, and no new visas would be issued to non-Pakistanis wishing to study in the seminaries and prayer schools. The ban would also apply to holders of dual nationality.

"An ordinance to this effect will be adopted in the next coming days," General Musharraf said, as part of new rules requiring all seminaries to register with the Government by the end of the year.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has urged Pakistan to move against extremists and radical madrassas following news that some of the London July 7 bombers had recently visited the South Asian country.

Musharraf vowed to continue a crackdown on hardliners he ordered last week, in which security forces said they had rounded up more than 600 suspected militants and Islamic clerics.

"Till now there is no suspect arrested" directly related to the London bombings, Musharraf said. "The investigation is going on. It's a little premature to draw a conclusion. It's a very tedious job."

The president, who has banned 10 extremist groups, said the raids had aimed not at rounding up large numbers of people but at catching the leaders of the Islamic radical underground.

"I don't want to arrest the workers," he told a group of foreign correspondents. "I want the leaders of the banned groups. I'm not impressed by figures. We want to get all of the bigwigs."

Musharraf also pledged to enforce a ban on anti-Western hate speeches being spread from mosque's loudspeakers or through audio recordings.

Asked about the seriousness of the arrest campaign, Musharraf: "I have never done anything not seriously. I don't bluff. I do act with realism. I am realistic, not idealistic. I am very, extremely serious."

Madrassas offer free religious education and board for more than one million Pakistani children, especially in areas neglected by state education services, but some have been targeted for preaching hatred against the West.

Many hardline schools were set up as indoctrination and military training sites during the 1979-1989 US-backed war against the Soviet occupation in neighboring Afghanistan.

Under the registration drive, the tribal and staunchly-Islamic North West Frontier Province had registered 720 religious seminaries, provincial law and parliamentary affairs minister Malik Zafar Azam said late Thursday.

As part of the sweeping arrests, Pakistani security services this week arrested Hashim Qadeer, a fugitive suspect in the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

US President George W. Bush later Thursday phoned Musharraf to discuss the "war on terrorism" and regional issues, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan without giving further details.

Security sources believe Osama bin Laden may still be hiding in western Pakistan, but Musharraf said this week his forces had dismembered Al-Qaeda and broken its communications structure.

Pakistan shares a 2,400-kilometres (1,500-mile) border with Afghanistan in the rugged and lawless mountain areas of the North-West Frontier Province and Balochistan, tribal regions which were for long beyond the reach of the central Government.

Almost daily violence rocks the region, where 70,000 Pakistani troops are hunting Taliban and Al-Qaeda linked insurgents who use remote mountain hideouts to stage cross-border raids on US and Afghan Government targets.

Gen. Musharraf ticked off another journalist who wanted to know why he was not in favor of strengthening democratic institutions and democracy. "I think you are referring to my uniform. That is the only issue. But two-thirds majority in Parliament has sanctioned it. If this is not democracy what else is it? You want me to dissolve the National and Provincial Assemblies. Is this your definition of democracy? Please understand that Pakistan has a certain environment and we have democracy".

He said, in the next few days, he would promulgate an ordinance to regulate the functioning of religious schools and it would be mandatory for them to register with the Government by December 31. "At the same time I urge you to be realistic. If 5,000-odd seminaries refuse to register, I am not going to close them down. We would like to adopt a strategy of persuasion".

He said the Al-Qaeda has become an "international phenomenon" and urged the world to join hands in addressing the state of mind called "Al-Qaeda phenomenon" through just resolution of the underlying causes of terror — political disputes.

Asserting there was no network of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, he said the "Al-Qaeda phenomenon" meant an individual who has followers, carries out terrorist action in London or elsewhere and claims that he is a member of the Al-Qaeda or is a branch of the Al-Qaeda.

"The world must understand that this Al-Qaeda has become a phenomenon — it has no command structure originating from Pakistan and conveying messages to the whole world to do this act and do that act under total coordination of some commander. It is a phenomenon where everyone has started calling himself Al-Qaeda, whether he has done it in London or Sharm-el-Shek," he argued.

Gen. Musharraf said military action alone would not lead to ultimate success in the fight against terror as they only gain time for other instruments to be used to change this phenomenon.

"The other instrument is resolution of political disputes. I have been calling for this during the last few years — resolve political disputes because that leads a person to extreme acts because he is feeling deprived and hopeless."

Addressing extremism in the long-term also involved the issues of poverty and education. "It may be a long-term strategy but what I am saying is to kill this phenomenon, which is a state of mind — we act with the military to gain time by hitting and curbing terrorists and Pakistan will remain in the lead role. But to attack the phenomenon in the mind, the whole world has to act to resolve political disputes and social issues. The sooner it is understood, the better for the entire world."

He claimed that as a result of Pakistan's sustained and effective campaign against terrorism, the Al-Qaeda is unable to operate from the country. He brushed aside suggestions that the Al-Qaeda has its headquarters in Pakistan. "This is absolutely and totally baseless," he asserted and said that in reality, Pakistan had dismantled the organization's ability to exist and operate as a homogeneous body. "If Al-Qaeda cannot act here, how come they are carrying out terrorism in the world," he asked. - Report compiled with help of Wire services

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