Pakistan peace effort rattled by cleric's exit

Image: Pakistan's hard-line cleric Sufi Muhammad leaves Mingora with his supporters in Pakistani troubled valley of Swat.
Pakistan's hard-line cleric Sufi Muhammad leaves Mingora with his supporters in the troubled Pakistani valley of Swat on Thursday.Naveed Ali / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The hard-line Muslim cleric who has mediated peace talks between Pakistan and the Taliban in the Swat Valley packed up and left the northwestern district Thursday, angrily denouncing the president for failing to sign off on imposing Islamic law in the area.

Sufi Muhammad's departure imperils a fragile cease-fire between militants and security forces that brought a tense calm to the valley after months of bloodletting but also alarmed Western leaders who want Pakistan to eradicate al-Qaida and Taliban havens.

The potential for a return to violence in Swat comes as nuclear-armed Pakistan faces unrest well beyond its northwest tribal regions, where militants are believed to have bases from which they plan attacks on U.S. and NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.

Late Thursday, the U.S. Embassy said "heightened security" concerns had prompted it to suspend routine consular services Friday in Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, where a recent suicide attack killed eight people. Spokesman Lou Fintor said consulates in other major cities would be open and emergency services were still available for Americans in the capital.

In the southwestern Baluchistan region, meanwhile, deadly protests erupted following the discovery of the mutilated bodies of three missing political dissidents — killings that activists immediately blamed on Pakistan's intelligence agencies.

Islamic law
Thanks in part to Muhammad's mediation in Swat, an agreement worked out in February ended 18 months of terrorism and bloody clashes that killed hundreds and forced up to a third of the valley's 1.5 million people to flee.

Imposing Islamic law in the one-time tourist haven was the key plank of the pact between the province's government and Muhammad.

Some judges trained in Islamic law have already started hearing cases in Swat, but Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has declined to sign the order allowing such courts until peace is restored. He hasn't given specifics on what that means.

Taliban fighters in Swat have retained their weapons. This week, they pushed into the neighboring area of Buner and engaged in deadly firefights with unwelcoming tribesmen and police.

Muhammad had been camped out in the valley's main town of Mingora with hundreds of black-turbaned supporters. On Thursday, dozens of his supporters crammed into a column of cars and trucks and drove out of the city.

The cleric said they were unhappy with Zardari's "negative attitude."

"From now on, President Zardari will be responsible for any situation in Swat," Muhammad told reporters. "The provincial government is sincere, and our agreement with the provincial government is intact, but we are ending our peace camp."

Mian Iftikhar Hussain, the province's information minister, said he believed the federal government supports the peace effort, but he couldn't say when the Islamic law bill might be signed.

"We are committed to bringing about a durable peace and we will continue our efforts in the changed situation," Hussain said.

Federal Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira said the government would decide on a response after talking with the provincial leadership.

Flogging video
Swat Taliban spokesman Muslim Khan said the province's government should push Zardari to sign the agreement. "So far we have not taken any step, and we are sticking to the cease-fire decision," Khan said.

Past peace pacts with Islamic militants in the northwest have tended to collapse, with officials saying the deals let militants regroup. U.S. and other Western officials worry the Swat accord would create a militant sanctuary near the Afghan border.

Human-rights activists are particularly upset over the idea of imposing Islamic law in the valley. A recent video of a militant flogging a young woman in Swat raised a fury and warnings that such punishments would become common if the deal is fully implemented.

Pakistani analyst Mohammed Amir Rana said Muhammad's departure effectively kills any pact.

"The government is facing a double-edged problem," Rana said. "If they sign the agreement with the militants, they are potentially providing them a haven. If you go against them with force, then (civilian deaths) increase and these groups can become more popular. Right now it is very problematic for the government to decide which way to go."