By CHRIS BRUMMITT
Associated Press Writer
ISLAMABAD (AP) -- An onslaught of militant violence has transformed Pakistan's capital from a sleepy oasis to something of a city under siege, with its tree-lined streets barricaded, schools shuttered and jittery residents wondering when the next attack will come.
The fear shows how Taliban and al-Qaida-led insurgents based along the Afghan border have brought the war into Pakistan's political and diplomatic heart, something they hope will force the government to halt a new army offensive into their stronghold.
The unease has been heightened by the range of targets attacked despite a nationwide security clampdown. Suicide bombers hit the International Islamic University and a U.N. office in Islamabad; militants took officers hostage for 22 hours at army headquarters in the neighboring city of Rawalpindi; commando-style raids paralyzed the eastern city of Lahore; and bombs have ripped through markets in the northwest.
More than 300 people have been killed, most of them Pakistani civilians. And no one expects the attacks to end soon.
"The feeling is that things have degenerated terribly," said Javeed Akhtar, a corporate lawyer. "The university bombing (on Oct. 20) sent a chill through everyone. There is now a realization that targets are unrestricted. It is no holds barred."
Islamabad once was sheltered from the militant, separatist and gang violence that was a feature of life in other cities in Pakistan. Visitors were typically amazed at how quiet, well-ordered and wealthy it was compared with other South Asian cities.
That began changing in mid-2007, when the army besieged and then stormed the city's Red Mosque after militants inside refused to surrender. Gunshots and explosions rang out for days across the most exclusive suburbs, and around 100 people were killed.
The siege is now widely considered to be the starting point of the insurgency. Vowing vengeance, militants based in the lawless, tribally controlled region along the Afghan border began a vicious campaign against targets associated with the government, security forces and Western interests.
While Islamabad was occasionally hit, its 900,000 people and several thousand foreign residents still considered themselves largely untouched by the war. But just over a year ago, a truck bombing devastated the J.W. Marriott Hotel and showed the city was well and truly in the militant cross hairs.
"Every morning as we leave our houses we pray, and we ask our family members to pray that we get back safe and sound," said Mohammad Rahim, who runs an electronics business in the city center. "That is what every Pakistani does."
With many people choosing to stay at home, owners of restaurants and shops popular with foreigners and wealthy Pakistanis say their earnings have dropped by 50 percent in the two weeks since the start of the latest government offensive.
Many schools remain closed following the university attack, while principals try to secure them against possible future attacks. Workers are busy building thick concrete barriers to stop suicide car bombers.
Many parents have chosen to keep children at home even when their schools reopened.
"As soon as there is an explosion, things come to a standstill for a day or two, but life must go on," said Najmi Rizvi, the head of a preschool where attendance was down 50 percent. "We have to live in this situation," she said, as toddlers in Halloween costumes ran around the yard.
The city's foreigners are especially at risk, given popular anger at the U.S.-led war in neighboring Afghanistan and the government's close ties with Washington. Fears have risen further amid hostile media reporting of the major expansion of the U.S. embassy, and reports - denied by American officials - that members of the tarnished security company once called Blackwater are present in the city.
Islamabad's main diplomatic enclave, which is fenced off from the rest of the city, has become a neighborhood of fortresses, with compounds sealed off behind concentric rings of barbed wire, blast walls and heavy metal gates. Armed men - whether from government security forces or the small armies of private guards at each compound - are everywhere.
In the face of the attacks, the resolve of the country's politicians, army generals and people to take the fight to the militants in their border sanctuary of South Waziristan appears to be holding. But unqualified support for the offensive is complicated by the unpopularity of the government and a belief that the violence would stop if America pulled out of Afghanistan.
In more than a dozen interviews Thursday and Friday, conspiracy theories alleging the involvement of neighboring India or the United States in the attacks were frequently aired.
"We want to see a normal life, so for God's sake, listen to what the (militants) are saying. They are against American forces in Afghanistan," said Imran Ali, a 32-year-old carpet dealer. "What America is doing is illegal, and that is the root cause of all evils."
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