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Pakistan leader under pressure to back Swat deal

world Updated: Apr 13, 2009 22:31 IST
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Pakistan's prime minister joined opposition leaders on Monday to pressure the president to sign a law that would impose Islamic rule in a northwestern valley in exchange for peace with the Taliban.

A Taliban spokesman said lawmakers would be considered to have abandoned Islam if they opposed the deal, which many Western and Pakistani critics have said represents a dangerous surrender to extremists behind a campaign of terror in the Swat Valley and more broadly across the border region with Afghanistan.

The provincial government in northwestern Pakistan agreed in February to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas in exchange for a cease-fire with the local Taliban.

But amid criticism from human rights activists and Western allies, President Asif Ali Zardari has delayed signing the agreement, something that would likely bring fresh international criticism on his shaky one-year stint at the helm of the nuclear-armed country.

His stance has long been that he won't sign until peace is achieved in the area but he hasn't defined what that means. The delay led a hardline cleric mediating the agreement to leave Swat in anger last week while also upsetting lawmakers from the region. Over the weekend, the federal government said Zardari wanted opinions from members of Parliament first.

"The whole nation is united in its support of the Swat regulation and wants the president to approve it," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said at the start of a floor debate on the pact that could end later Monday with a vote.

Gilani said he was present at meetings with Zardari and the local goverment "where the president gave the consent that you should go ahead and you should have (the) deal."

Even without the president's approval, judges trained in Islamic law have already began hearing cases in Swat and witnesses say the Taliban are in effective control of much of the region.

Supporters say the changes in the legal system will speed up justice there, not lead to harsh punishments or restrict the rights of women.

Zahid Khan, information secretary for the Awami National Party, which leads the provincial government and has been repeatedly targeted by extremists, warned earlier that it will review its alliance with Zardari's party if the delays continue.

The Awami National Party notes that an Islamic legal system has long been a local demand in Swat, and says it is the best hope for ending the bloodshed.

"We are not against taking up the issue in Parliament, but this is not constitutionally needed," Zahid Khan said. "The president has the power to do it on his own, and he must do it to avoid any worsening of situation in Swat."

In a sign that Zardari may be searching for political cover to avoid backing the deal, a top member of his party on Monday accused the Taliban of failing to hold up their end of the bargain. Those brokering the deal have given few specifics about conditions placed on the Taliban.

But Pakistan People's Party information secretary Fauzia Wahab said the Taliban were supposed to cooperate with security forces, denounce suicide attacks, close their training camps and turn over their weapons, among other measures.

They hadn't kept their end of the bargain, she said, insisting, "The agreement was two-way, it was not one-way." Muslim Khan, the Taliban spokesman, did not say whether the Taliban would punish legislators opposing the deal other than to say a militant council would discuss the matter. The charge of apostasy, or abandoning Islam, carries the death penalty in some quarters.