- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan An alliance of hard-line Islamic parties called yesterday for the removal of U.S. forces from the country, prompting fears that major electoral gains by the coalition would hurt cooperation in the search for al Qaeda and Taliban stragglers along the Afghan border.
Leaders of the Mutahidda-e-Amal, or MMA Islamic coalition, also said they would insist on the introduction of strict Islamic law, sending shudders through a secular elite whose members are already warning that "Taliban-like" governments may emerge in two provinces bordering Afghanistan.
The alliance of six clerical parties captured large pluralities in the provincial assemblies of North West Frontier Province and Baluchistan while racking up strong gains nationally in parliamentary elections last week.
The clerics fell short of outright majorities in the two provinces where the search for al Qaeda is concentrated but captured enough seats to enable them to form governments in both.
They could also end up with control of the federal Senate, in which seats are allocated on a geographic basis. That would give them a powerful voice in foreign affairs and defense.
"We assure the international community that we are not terrorists," MMA Vice President Qazi Hussain said at a news conference yesterday. "We will not use this country for terrorism, nor allow anyone to use this country for terrorism."
But, he added, "We do not approve of foreign interference. For this we do not need any help from the American forces nor their bases in the country. There should also be no such bases here which could be used for interference in the affairs of neighboring states."
The United States has been using an airfield at Jacobabad in Pakistan as a base for search-and-rescue operations in Afghanistan. It also has a small number of CIA and FBI operatives in the country to advise on the search for wanted militants.
Another MMA leader, Munawar Hasan, went even further when speaking to reporters yesterday in Karachi, where a number of al Qaeda operatives are believed to be sheltering in safe houses.
"The Taliban and al Qaeda members are our brothers," he said. "We will not hand over anybody to the United States without proof" that they were involved in terrorism.
President Pervez Musharraf insisted during a visit to Turkey yesterday that his policy of close cooperation with the United States in the war on terrorism would continue.
"As far as national policies are concerned the national strategy does not change with a change of government; it continues," he said.
Indeed, it is still not clear whether the MMA will be part of the national government after its third-place finish behind the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), or PML(Q), and the Pakistan Peoples Party, led by self-exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
But local police forces, which must play a large role in the hunt for terrorists, are under the control of the provincial governments and could be ordered to cut back or end their cooperation in any MMA-ruled territories.
At a press conference yesterday in Karachi, MMA Chairman Shah Ahmed Noorani said his party also supported the introduction of Islamic law, or Sharia, which includes such harsh penalties as stoning and amputation.
"Our first priority is to implement Islamic laws in the country, and we will not compromise in this issue. Now it is the responsibility of the state to protect Islam and do away with secular norms," he said.
Such remarks are unnerving Pakistan's secular intelligensia.
"In my opinion, the [North West Frontier Province] is in for a government which is going to be pretty close to the Taliban," said a former senior official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
He said the emergence of the clerics as a potent force was probably the result of interference in the democratic process by Gen. Musharraf, who enhanced his own powers before the election and prevented the leaders of the two main secular parties from participating.
Gen. Musharraf "deliberately hobbled the two major parties and tried to create this 'king's party,'" he said in reference to the PML(Q).
"OK, so they've achieved one objective, that the king's party has come out in the lead, but they've created space for the MMA."
Ijaz Shafi Gilani, who is head of the Gallup International polling organization in Pakistan, said he considered the rise of "Taliban-like" governments in the border provinces unlikely because of the number of votes the MMA received from traditional supporters of the main secular parties.


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