ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The government scrambled yesterday to salvage a peace deal with militants in North Waziristan, raising questions whether President Pervez Musharraf is prepared to take a new offensive into tribal areas where al Qaeda sympathizers are ensconced.
Tribal elders were dispatched to negotiate with militant Islamists in the troubled border region, who over the weekend renounced a 10-month-old deal that U.S. officials say has allowed al Qaeda to establish safe havens for training and attacks into Afghanistan.
Gen. Musharraf, pledging to crack down on extremism after troops successfully ousted militants from Islamabad's famous Red Mosque last week, had hinted at an offensive against the sanctuaries by saying the military would confront extremism in "every corner" of Pakistan.
Thousands of security forces subsequently streamed into North-West Frontier Province, where clashes with the militants killed 73 persons, most of them police and security forces. The militants in North Waziristan distributed pamphlets saying they would no longer respect the deal with the government.
That announcement was not unwelcome to U.S. military and diplomatic officials, who think the deal has enabled al Qaeda to re-establish training camps and support bases in the region even as local leaders impose Taliban-style restrictions on the public.
But Pakistani spokesmen, including senior officials in the Interior Ministry, insisted yesterday that they still wanted to save the "peace deals."
Akram Khan Durrani, the top elected official of North-West Frontier Province, told journalists in Peshawar that increased violence could follow a collapse of the bargain, in which local leaders pledged to prevent raids into Afghanistan in exchange for a free hand in the territory.
"Please God, may this peace agreement not be broken because it will have dangerous consequences," Mr. Durrani said. "Peace came to the tribal areas and the entire country after this agreement."
Analysts and political opponents predicted that Gen. Musharraf would try to use the crisis to strengthen his hand politically as elections approach.
"The timing of this crisis is all rather expedient for him," said Sherry Rehman, a spokeswoman for Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, speaking by telephone from London. "All these actions in the tribal areas should have been taken months ago."
Umar Farouk, a correspondent for the a leading political magazine Herald, said Gen. Musharraf was using the confrontation with the jihadists to "deflect attention away from the real political crisis" involving a confrontation with the judiciary branch over Gen. Musharraf's efforts to simultaneously remain as chief of the armed forces and head of state.
The crisis also serves to strengthen what Ayesha Siddiqa, author of a controversial book, "Military Inc.," describes as a "parent-guardian" role played by the Pakistani military, to the detriment of democratic forces.
But by working to salvage the peace deals in North Waziristan and nearby Bajaur, Gen. Musharraf risks angering the United States, which for weeks has been pressing him to end the arrangement. The two areas are thought to be prime hideaways for senior al Qaeda leaders, including chief propagandist Ayman al-Zawahri.
Gen. Hamid Gul, a former head of Pakistani intelligence with well-established jihadist ties, warned in an interview that Gen. Musharraf "is getting on the wrong side of the fence" by challenging the extremists militarily.
Speaking by phone from his home in Rawalpindi outside of Islamabad, Gen. Gul warned that the United States through its continued support of Gen. Musharraf, risks creating an increasingly "hostile Pakistan."
Despite this, Gen. Gul expressed doubts that Gen. Musharraf would make good on a pledge that he will stop at nothing to root out extremism.