- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

From combined dispatches

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Under pressure from lawmakers including members of his own party, Pakistan's president Monday signed a regulation that puts a northwest valley under Islamic law to achieve peace with Taliban militants who have brutalized the area.

Meanwhile, authorities announced the arrest of a fifth suspect in the deadly siege of the Indian city of Mumbai last year.

The provincial government in northwestern Pakistan agreed in February to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley and surrounding areas in exchange for a cease-fire with the local Taliban.

Western and Pakistani critics say the agreement represents a dangerous surrender to extremists behind a campaign of terrorism in the Swat Valley and more broadly across the border region with Afghanistan.

Amid the criticism, President Asif Ali Zardari delayed signing the agreement.

His official stance was that he wouldn't sign until peace is achieved in the area - but he never defined what that means. The delay led a hard-line cleric mediating the agreement to leave Swat in anger last week while also upsetting lawmakers from the region.

“The whole nation is united in its support of the Swat regulation and wants the president to approve it,” Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said at the start of a floor debate on the pact Monday.

Even without the president's approval, judges trained in Islamic law had already began hearing cases in Swat, and witnesses say the Taliban are in effective control of much of the region. Supporters say the changes in the legal system will speed up justice there, not lead to harsh punishments or restrict the rights of women.

Opponents cite a video aired last week of fanatics flogging a woman who refused to marry a Taliban commander as an example of Shariah law in action.

The Taliban, meanwhile, have taken their campaign to impose Shariah law throughout Pakistan to the next mountain valley, only 60 miles from the capital, police and residents told Reuters news agency Monday.

Surging militant violence across Pakistan and the spread of Taliban influence through the northwest are reviving concerns about the stability of the nuclear-armed U.S. ally.

Pakistan is crucial to U.S. efforts to stabilize neighboring Afghanistan but the government has been unable to check militant attacks in its cities let alone stop insurgents crossing into Afghanistan from border strongholds to battle Western forces.

Clashes erupted in Buner district last week after scores of Taliban moved in from the neighboring Swat Valley.

Buner residents formed a militia, or “lashkar,” to resist the militants and 13 people, including eight Taliban, three policemen and two villagers, were killed in clashes.

Authorities say they are negotiating with the militants to persuade them to withdraw but the Taliban have stayed put and appeared determined to take over the valley, police said.

“They are everywhere,” Arsala Khan, a deputy superintendent of police, told Reuters by telephone from Buner.

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