- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Taliban-style militants battling government forces in northwestern Pakistan said yesterday that they wanted dialogue with the winners of parliamentary elections and urged the new leadership to abandon President Pervez Musharraf’s war on terror.

The party of slain opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, which will lead the new government, called for an end to military operations against autonomy-minded insurgents in another restive area — the southwestern province of Baluchistan, where the U.S.-backed Afghan government thinks the Taliban leadership may be hiding.

Opposition parties trounced Mr. Musharraf’s allies in Feb. 18 parliamentary elections — widely seen as a public repudiation of Mr. Musharraf’s policies, including his alliance with Washington in the war on terror.

The election results have fueled calls from inside and outside Pakistan for Mr. Musharraf to step down. Two U.S. senators yesterday urged a “graceful exit” from power for the unpopular president but stopped short of supporting efforts to remove him from office.

“I firmly believe if they do not focus on old grudges — and there’s plenty in Pakistan — and give him a graceful way to move,” then it could happen, said Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Democrat from Delaware who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, echoed the sentiment. Both spoke on ABC television’s “This Week” after meeting with Mr. Musharraf.

Maulvi Umar, spokesman for the Islamic militant Tehrik-e-Taliban, said his group welcomed the victory of anti-Musharraf parties and was anxious to talk with them about ways to bring peace to northwestern tribal areas, where U.S. officials think that Osama bin Laden himself may be hiding.

“We hope after the government comes into power, they will not make the mistake of continuing the existing policies and will bring peace to the people of tribal areas,” the spokesman said by phone. “We want peace and are looking for dialogue with those who got elected.”

U.S. and Pakistani officials have blamed the leader of the Tehrik-e-Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, for masterminding Mrs. Bhutto’s Dec. 27 assassination. Her Pakistan People’s Party finished first in last week’s vote.

More than 80,000 Pakistani soldiers have been battling Islamic extremists in the mountainous northwest but have failed to crush the insurgency. A unilateral cease-fire called by the militants this month has reduced the level of fighting.

However, violence continues, and a suspected militant attack late Saturday on a government checkpoint near Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, killed two paramilitary soldiers and one policeman, local police official Zulfikar Khan said.

Mr. Musharraf’s critics have long complained that military operations have worsened the security situation in the border areas and have urged the government to combat extremism through dialogue and economic incentives. They say a new approach is needed to build public support.

However, U.S. officials fear a dialogue-based strategy may end up giving al Qaeda and other hard-line Islamists a sanctuary in Pakistan. U.S. officials think that a 10-month cease-fire in mountainous North Waziristan, which collapsed last year, enabled al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban fighters to regroup after being driven by U.S.-led forces from Afghanistan.

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