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Islamic law to be imposed in Swat valley

President gives assent to provincial deal made in February with Taliban extremists

From Tuesday's Globe and Mail

ISLAMABAD — Pakistan's President agreed yesterday to impose Islamic law in a militant-controlled region of the country, a step seen by one observer as “a formula for the Talibanization of Pakistan.”

The concession to the extremists comes as militants overran the Buner district less than 100 kilometres from the capital, Islamabad, facing almost no resistance from the security forces.

President Asif Ali Zardari signed an agreement to make sharia the law in Swat, a huge valley in the northwest, following a unanimous resolution passed in parliament earlier in the day in favour of the move. The provincial government in the northwest had forged a deal with Taliban extremists in Swat in February, conceding the imposition of the Islamic law in return for peace, but the accord was in doubt as Mr. Zardari had hesitated on giving his necessary assent.

Washington has voiced its concerns over the deal, as have Pakistan's liberal critics. But, after Pakistan's large army was beaten by a band of marauding Taliban in Swat, politicians were left with few options.

“This [ sharia] has been imposed from a position of defeat,” said Iqbal Haider, co-chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent campaigning group. “This is a formula for the Talibanization of Pakistan.”

In the parliamentary debate, the argument for the deal was led by the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, a secular organization. Only one political party, the Karachi-based MQM, was critical of the deal, but it abstained rather than vote against. Farooq Sattar, a leader of the MQM, said his party does not believe in “agreements made at gunpoint.”

Mr. Zardari's spokesperson, Farahnaz Ispahani, said that the President signed the sharia agreement “after passing of unanimous resolution by parliament, which reflects the wishes of the people of Pakistan.”

In Swat, which has suffered a two-year campaign of terror at the hands of the Taliban, there was widespread relief over the presidential assent. Since the deal was agreed with the provincial authorities in February, the Taliban have taken a much lower profile but the delay in getting Islamabad's approval raised trepidation among ordinary people in Swat that the gunmen would be back on the streets. According to reports coming out of Swat late yesterday, locals were celebrating by firing guns in the air and handing out sweets. The Swat Taliban said that they “appreciated” the parliament's endorsement of the deal.

The government agreed to the deal in February with a radical cleric, Sufi Mohammad, who is not part of the Taliban but has promised that there will be peace if sharia is brought in. Mehmood Shah, an analyst who was formerly a senior official in the northwest, said that the presidential signature meant that Sufi Mohammad would be left with “no more excuses.”

But Mr. Shah added: “The government doesn't have a plan. It is not really motivated enough. That's how this [militancy] is spreading.”

Swat, a 5,300-square-kilometre mountainous region, was previously Pakistan's top tourist destination before Taliban militants became entrenched in 2007, turning it into a valley of bloodshed and fear. Pakistani Taliban, based in the semi-autonomous tribal area further west from Swat, are allied with al-Qaeda. Swat is the only “settled” area in Pakistan – a regular part of the country – that has, in effect, been annexed by the militants.

The sharia agreement applies not only in Swat but in surrounding districts, including Buner to its southeast and Dir to its west. Those areas are the next Taliban targets for takeover, it appears.

About a week ago, hundreds of armed militants moved into Buner district, which has a population of around 500,000, killing three policemen and two locals. They have taken over a shrine and some houses and now patrol the area, imploring the youth there to join them, according to local media reports. From Buner, the Taliban could go east or west to strategically important positions. The News, a Pakistani daily, said that locals “had no support from the federal or provincial government and it was, in military terms, a walkover for the Taliban.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

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