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Violence spirals as Pakistan awaits new government PDF Print E-mail
Tuesday, 04 March 2008

ISLAMABAD, Reuters - A spate of suicide attacks by Islamist militants could spark a war of revenge among ethnic Pashtun tribesmen in Pakistan's northwest just as moderate, secular political parties appear poised for power, analysts say.

The region is already regarded as the main battleground in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the stakes are raised because of Pakistan's status as a nuclear-armed state.

The militants want to destabilise President Pervez Musharraf, and convince Pakistanis his alliance with the United States is the root cause of conflict in the area. For their part, Pakistan's Western allies want its new prime minister and government, once they emerge from the hung parliament returned by voters in an election on Feb. 18, to provide the democratic legitimacy for the war on terrorism that Musharraf has been unable to engender.

"You may not question President Pervez Musharraf's policy on terrorism, you may say it's all right but the point is nobody is ready to own this policy," said Talat Masood, a former general and security analyst.

"The greatest advantage of the civilian government will be that the policy will be owned by the people of Pakistan." Well over 500 people have been killed in militant-related violence so far this year, but the campaign of suicide attacks began after troops stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad to put down a militant student movement in the heart of the capital. While the remote Waziristan region has seen the worst of the violence over the past few years, in recent months hitherto dormant tribal areas have erupted in violence.

At least 40 people were killed on Friday in a suicide attack in the Swat district of North West Frontier Province (NWFP) during the funeral of a policeman hours after he was killed in a roadside attack.

On Sunday, another 40 people died and scores were wounded when a young bomber blew himself up as hundreds of tribesmen left a jirga, or council, that had discussed how to restore peace in Darra Adam Kheil, a tribal region near Peshawar, the NWFP capital.

The army has been fighting militants in Swat since October, and just last week had claimed it had cleared all but a few pockets of resistance.

SOCIETY'S DESCENT

But attacks like a roadside bomb that killed 13 members of a wedding party, including the bride, on Feb. 22, again in Swat, demonstrated the insecurity ordinary families are encountering. Analysts noted a "dangerous trend" towards attacks that struck at the heart of Pashtun society. "These are direct attacks on Pashtun society," said Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for the tribal areas.

"All institutions, which represent Pashtun society, the mosque, a wedding, a funeral or a jirga, they have all been targetted. "They want to bomb the entire Pashtun society into submission." Pashtuns, whose lands straddle both sides of the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, live to a code of honour, commonly known as Pashtunwali, that calls on menfolk to take revenge if a family member is killed.

The attacks on the funeral and the jirga could trigger inter-tribal feuds, in a region where guns are commonly referred to as "Pashtun jewellery". "This situation could ignite tribal enmities. This will create a very explosive and dangerous situation for the government," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a newspaper editor and an expert on Pashtun affairs.

The escalating violence has raised concern among Western countries about the stability of the nuclear-armed state amid the growing unpopularity of U.S. ally Musharraf. The recent attacks came as winners of the Feb. 18 elections were negotiating to cobble together a coalition government.

There have been a spate of attacks in the run-up to elections but polling day passed off with far less violence than feared. The Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto, the country's most liberal politician who was killed in an attack blamed on al Qaeda-linked militants on Dec. 27, emerged as the largest group in the National Assembly, dealing a humiliating defeat to Musharraf's allies.

A moderate Pashtun party, the Awami National Party, won the most seats in the NWFP assembly by trouncing Islamist parties and is likely to lead the provincial government in a coalition with the PPP, but if they fail to quell the violence voters will soon become disenchanted, analysts said.

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