- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2008

ISLAMABAD | Leaders of Pakistan’s four-party governing coalition will meet next week to develop a strategy to deal with foreign extremists in the tribal areas where, Prime Minister Yousaf Reza Gilani said, their numbers are increasing by the day.

Mr. Gilani told reporters that the militants could precipitate a Sept. 11-type attack again unless strong action is taken against them.

“When there is interference in the [tribal areas] from people who [do] not belong to your country and they are coming from Chechnya, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan and they are militants disturbing the peace of the country, naturally [the United States] object because they don’t want … another [incident] of the same nature as 9/11 [to] take place,” the Press Trust of India quoted Mr. Gilani as saying.

The leaders of the four-party coalition, he said, would attempt to work out a strategy to curb terrorism and suicide bombings in the country, but ruled out allowing U.S. troops to operate inside Pakistan’s borders.

The prime minister made his remarks amid reports of a buildup of NATO forces close to the Pakistani border and fears that U.S. commandos could enter the tribal belt known as the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) to attack the Taliban militant bases and training camps if the Pakistani forces are unable to do the job themselves.

“The [July 23-24] meeting will decide a plan of action to proceed against terrorists, suicide bombers and a handful of people who are disturbing the peace of the nation and creating a law and order problem,” Mr. Gilani told reporters Monday night in Lahore.

Pakistan Muslim League chief Nawaz Sharif, Awami National Party chief Asfandyar Wali Khan, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Pakistan People’s Party Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari would attend the meeting, he said.

Retired army chief Gen. Mirza Aslam Beg told the Washington Times recently that foreign fighters in Pakistan also included Arabs and extremists from as many as 70 Muslim countries.

Insurgent activity is increasing in Afghanistan as violence plummets in Iraq.

The Washington Times reported last month that U.S. officials were seeing a sharp drop in the number of foreigners entering Iraq to become al Qaeda suicide bombers.

Officials have told The Times that interrogations of captured foreign fighters showed that most extremist bombers came from Saudi Arabia and North Africa.

Mr. Gilani, whose Pakistan Peoples Party heads the ruling coalition, has been criticized by U.S. and NATO officials for not focusing earlier on the growing extremist threat along the country’s western borders.

Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani told The Times last month that a June 28 strike against a Taliban-allied militant group led by Mangal Bagh was an example for extremists who challenge the nation’s new government militarily.

He said additional planned military action in the border area would demonstrate Pakistan’s commitment to fighting the Taliban and other militant groups.

But Pakistanis are showing little support for military action against the extremists.

Islamabad shopkeeper Abdul Hameed, 67, saw the campaign against the extremists as “fighting America’s war on Pakistani soil.” Student Mohsen Abbas, 19, called operations in FATA and the northern Swat district “inappropriate.”

“It does not make sense for any government to use force against its own people,” he said.

Gul Wali, a 24-year-old laborer, said he was unaware of what, if any, actions were being taken in the tribal areas because he was too busy trying to earn his daily wages.

Taxi driver Muhammad Jamil, 33, said operations in FATA and Swat would “portray a very ugly picture of the country” to the world and that the government should “resume the process of dialogue.”

Since he assumed office in March, a month after the Feb. 18 elections, Mr. Gilani initiated a strategy of holding talks with tribal leaders who could, he hoped, rein in the extremists led by Baitullah Mehsud, considered one of the Taliban’s top military commanders in Pakistan, in South Waziristan and with pro-Taliban fundamentalist cleric Maulana Fazlullah in Swat.

The failure of the strategy was brought home dramatically earlier this month when a suicide bomber attacked a police station in Islamabad, killing at least 16 people on the first anniversary of a military attack on the pro-Taliban Red Mosque and the adjacent Jamia Hafsa, a madrassa for girls.

Days later, the Pakistani military launched a military operation against tribal forces in the town of Bara who appeared to threaten Peshawar, a city of 1 million people near the Khyber Pass.

The troops pushed the Bara force into a remote area known as Tirah, and forced them to sign an “undertaking” to keep the peace.

Hardly had that incident subsided when another group of militants loyal to Mr. Mehsud stormed the British-era Shinawaray fort near Hangu, southwest of Peshawar.

Reports from the area said the fort was thinly manned at the time of the attack, and that of the roughly 25 Frontier Corps personnel stationed there, about 15 had been killed earlier.

The rest surrendered to the militants in return for a promise of safe passage.

The Hangu incident was similar to surrenders by government forces to militants in Waziristan last year, when President Pervez Musharraf tried and failed to bring peace to the tribal areas through deals brokered by jirgas, or tribal councils.

On June 24, Mr. Mehsud’s men killed 28 members of a tribal peace committee near the town of Tank, just outside the South Waziristan agency.

Some of the slain men had their throats slit - a hallmark of Uzbek militants in the area.

cRalph Joseph contributed to this report from London, Ontario.

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