Opposition grows to Pakistan's Taliban pact

Opposition is building among Pakistani politicians and media to a peace deal aimed at ending Taliban violence in a northwestern region after the Islamists challenged democratic rule and started taking over new areas.

Pakistan is struggling to come up with a coherent strategy to stop the spread of militant violence and influence, raising fears that the country could slowly slide into Taliban hands.

After failing to quell the Taliban through force, President Asif Ali Zardari last week approved enforcement of Islamic sharia law in the Swat valley and adjoining areas despite criticism from Western governments and Pakistani liberals and rights groups.

Critics said the approval of sharia law in the valley, 80 miles north-west of Islamabad, was akin to appeasing the militants.

Within days they forced their way into a new district closer to the capital, refused to lay down their arms and said their aim was to push their harsh version of Islam across the country.

"They are now threatening to get out of Swat and take other areas into their custody. So we've got to avoid that situation," former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said in an interview with USA Today published today.

Sharif is seen as the most popular politician in Pakistan after he forced Zardari to give in on a confrontation over the independence of the judiciary last month.

His party backed a resolution in parliament calling for the enforcement of sharia law in Swat to secure peace.

But a radical pro-Taliban Islamic cleric, Sufi Mohammad, who brokered the agreement in Swat, set off alarm bells across the country when he told his followers recently that democracy, elections and the judiciary were "un-Islamic."

Sharif said any deal with militants should include commitments that "democracy will not be allowed to deteriorate and the writ of the government will be honoured."

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said the government consented to the regulation enforcing sharia law in Swat on the advice of a secular party that leads the provincial government, but it could review the pact if peace was not restored.

"The regulation is bracketed with the restoration of peace ... if peace is not restored one can rethink and revisit," he told reporters in Islamabad.

Pakistani commentators have become increasingly sceptical about Taliban aims and have urged the government to stand up to them.

"Sufi, Taliban must be fenced in" the News newspaper said in a headline on a front-page commentary today, referring to the radical cleric.

The Dawn newspaper called for action against the cleric and his Taliban followers instead of trying to appease them.

"Sufi Mohammad ... the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qa'ida are all committed to overthrowing the state," Dawn said in an editorial. "We must resist this onslaught."

Effective Pakistani action against militants in its northwest is vital to US plans to stabilise neighbouring Afghanistan.

The North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government, led by the secular ethnic Pashtun Awami National Party (ANP), pushed for the introduction of sharia in Swat to bring peace.

Critics say the ANP caved in to the Taliban and betrayed the people of Swat who shunned Islamist parties and backed the ANP in a general election last year.

Munawar Hassan, chief of Jamaat-e-Islami, a major Islamic party, criticised Sufi Mohammad for "unrealistic" statements.

"They are based on ignorance," Hassan said.