Pakistan's National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, has begun debating a controversial peace deal with the Taliban in the country's restive northwest, a move that could see a junior partner of the ruling federal coalition walking out in protest.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Babar Awan Monday tabled the draft of the February 16 deal signed between the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) government and Taliban-linked radical cleric Sufi Muhammad on imposing Sharia laws in Swat and six other districts of the province in return for the militants laying down their arms.
The tabling of the deal has upset the Awami National Party (ANP), a junior partner in the federal coalition and which leads NWFP's ruling alliance, as it says it was not consulted on this.
"If it was necessary to send the document to parliament, the ANP should have been taken into confidence," NWFP Information Minister Iftikhar Hussain has been quoted as saying.
According to Hussain, President Asif Ali Zardari, who had given his nod for the peace deal, was empowered to ratify it.
Instead, Zardari rolled it into parliament to shift the responsibility away from himself as he was facing growing international pressure to reject the accord.
"Zardari does not want to be held responsible for any negative fallout if this deal backfires in future, as then parliament will be responsible," The News said on Monday.
Parliament was not taken into confidence when Zardari gave his nod to the NWFP government to sign the deal with Sufi Mohammad. At that time, Zardari had said he would ratify the accord only if peace returned to the region, over much of which the writ of the Taliban runs.
Many Western nations, including the US termed the deal a "retrograde" step as it was seen as bowing before the Taliban and getting in return too little for giving up too much.
The deal appeared to have come unstuck last week with Sufi Muhammad winding up his peace camp and leaving Swat to protest Zardari's delay in acceding to the accord. He then clarified the pact was intact but was dependent on Zardari signing it.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, The News said, "was also said to have been caught off guard when he received the copy of Nizam-e-Adl (Sharia law) from the presidency to table it before parliament as he, too, like rest of the politicians was expecting the president to sign the agreement".
What apparently tipped the balance was Parliamentary Affairs Minister Awan, who advised the president against taking responsibility for the deal.
"Awan was of the view this deal should be sent to parliament for discussion, debate and subsequent approval or rejection," The News said, adding the minister said that if parliament, representing the people of Pakistan, was ready to ink the deal with Taliban, the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government "would not be singled out in case the deal went wrong at any stage".
With the issue now in parliament, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) also finds himself in a spot.
Should he oppose the bill, he will attract the ire of the military establishment that had pushed the measure, as also of the Taliban and could well face a threat from the militants.
Support for the measure would mean attracting US anger.
"Let’s see how the US now convinces their new friend Nawaz Sharif not to sign the deal in parliament,” The News quoted a Zardari aide as saying.
Protracted fighting between the Pakistani security forces and the Taliban has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee Swat. Estimates vary, but human rights monitors believe that up to 800,000 of the valley's 1.8 million people may have left.