Pakistani Muslims go to holy war

Sunday, October 28, 2001

In buses and trucks, pickups and vans, more than 5,000 people rolled out of a northeastern Pakistan village Saturday morning, bound for the Afghan frontier and vowing to fight a holy war against the United States.

Hundreds were reported crossing into Afghanistan over rugged mountains by Saturday evening, Pakistani border police said.

Thousands of Pakistani men had massed in Temergarah on Friday night with assault rifles, machine guns, even rocket launchers. A few even carried axes and swords.

Their mission, they said: to enter Afghanistan's Kunar province and help the country's ruling Taliban defend against any ground incursions by American troops.

'Lucky' martyr

"I am an old man. I consider myself lucky to go -- and to face the death of a martyr," said Shah Wazir, 70, a retired Pakistani army officer. In his hands Saturday morning, he carried a French rifle from about 1920.

Organizers said similar-sized groups were massing in other towns across North West Frontier Province, an enclave of ethnic Pashtuns with ties to -- and deep feelings for -- neighboring Afghanistan.

Volunteers gathered in scores of groups of 20, sitting on the ground to be briefed on the ways of jihad -- Islamic holy war -- by military commanders wearing black turbans and full beards similar to the Taliban militia. One key rule: obedience to leaders.

"It is a difficult time for Islam and Muslims. We are in a test. Everybody should be ready to pass the test -- and to sacrifice our lives," said Mohammad Khaled, one brigade leader. Would-be warriors embraced and chanted anti-American slogans.

The call for holy war came this week from Sufi Mohammad, an outspoken Muslim cleric who runs a madrassa, or religious school, in nearby Madyan. He exhorted "true Muslims" to mass and prepare to go to Afghanistan -- to repel any U.S. ground incursions.

What they will do upon arrival is uncertain. But hundreds of vehicles -- more than 1,000 volunteers -- rolled into the mountains that separate the two countries Saturday night, said Himdallah Khan, a police official at Bajur Agency, a borderland area. Many returned empty. Hundreds of other Pakistanis from different areas were converging near Bajur.

In this region of Pakistan, Mohammad's organization, Tehrik Nifaz Shariat Mohammadi Malakand, or Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws, has been embraced.

And the cleric's message -- that the United States is waging war on Islam -- hits home.

"This is a strange occasion of world history," Mohammad said Friday. "For the first time, all the anti-Islamic forces are united against Islam."

Militant numbers

It was impossible to verify how many supporters were actually en route to join him. In recent weeks, many militants have claimed far more backing than rallies eventually produce.

However, the numbers in Temergarah on Saturday morning -- and the people jammed into trucks and on bus rooftops -- suggested support was heavy. Mohammad's backers say the number to enter Afghanistan will reach 100,000.

"We are not worried about death," said Khaled, the brigade leader.

The night before, men had massed by the thousands in Temergarah and other wind-whipped mountain villages in northeastern Pakistan's mountains.

Out-of-towners, their conversation crackling with anticipation, roamed Temergarah's streets. Pickup trucks patrolled town with loudspeakers attached, calling people to assemble with a chant: "Afghanistan will be a graveyard for Americans."

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