- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan will fight terrorism as its top priority but will also negotiate with militant groups willing to “join the path of peace,” the new prime minister said yesterday.

Yousaf Raza Gilani, in his first policy speech, also said the government would seek to reinstate judges ousted by President Pervez Musharraf last year — a move that could prompt a showdown with the U.S.-backed leader.

“We are facing many challenges, but we are not afraid of these challenges, and we will confront them,” Mr. Gilani told lawmakers.

“We are the flagbearers of peace, freedom, prosperity and enlightenment,” he said.

Parliament elected Mr. Gilani as prime minister on Monday, six weeks after moderate opposition parties triumphed in elections that have restored democracy after eight years of military rule under Mr. Musharraf.

Underlining the transformation of Pakistan’s political landscape, lawmakers yesterday gave a unanimous vote of confidence to Mr. Gilani, a loyalist of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

In a gesture to Western nations concerned that Mr. Musharraf’s decline could result in an easing of Pakistan’s efforts to counter al Qaeda and Taliban militants entrenched along the Afghan border, he announced that fighting terrorism was his government’s top priority.

“The war against terrorism is our own war,” Mr. Gilani said. But he also said authorities were “ready to hold talks with those who will lay down their arms and join the path of peace.”

Mr. Gilani promised to develop the impoverished frontier region’s economy and abolish criminal codes dating back to British colonial rule that contribute to its isolation and backwardness. He vowed to tighten the regulation of religious schools, some of which are recruiting grounds for extremists.

Mrs. Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and that of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finished first and second in Feb. 18 parliamentary elections, trouncing Mr. Musharraf’s political allies.

They agreed to form a coalition but have yet to announce any of Mr. Gilani’s Cabinet ministers.

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