- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

ISLAMABAD (AP) - The U.S. criticized Pakistan’s acceptance of Islamic law in a northwestern valley to quell a Taliban insurgency as undermining human rights, while a hard-line cleric who mediated the deal told the Pakistani government Wednesday not to interfere in the region’s new judicial system.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs’ comments Tuesday were the most pointed American criticism of the Swat Valley deal to date.

“The administration believes solutions involving security in Pakistan don’t include less democracy and less human rights,” Gibbs said. He said the Swat deal “goes against both of those principles.”

Also Tuesday, U.S. Sen. John Kerry told reporters while visiting Pakistan that the Muslim-majority nation had to “ratchet up” its sense of urgency in battling the spreading militancy in its northwest.

Pakistan has tried both carrots and sticks in dealing with the insurgency, even as it has been distracted by a host of issues including a faltering economy and political feuds.

In Swat, a one-time tourist haven, 18 months of bloodshed prompted the provincial government in February to agree to impose Islamic law there and in surrounding areas to achieve peace. The Taliban agreed to a cease-fire with security forces.

After weeks of delay, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari approved the regulation on Monday after Parliament voted unanimously to adopt a resolution urging him to sign it.

The deal covers the Malakand division of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, a largely conservative region near the Afghan border. The Swat Valley is less than 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the capital, Islamabad, and is believed to be largely under Taliban control.

Defenders say the deal will drain public support for extremists who have hijacked long-standing calls in Swat for reform of Pakistan’s snail-paced justice system.

But critics worry it rewards hard-liners who have beheaded political opponents and burned scores of schools for girls in the name of Islam _ and that it will encourage similar demands in other parts of the country.

Western allies are particularly concerned that Swat will become a sanctuary for allies of the al-Qaida terror network.

On Wednesday, Sufi Muhammad, the hard-line cleric who brokered the agreement, urged Taliban fighters in the area to lay down their weapons now that the government had met the Islamic law demand. He said he would soon lead a rally in Swat in support of the government.

“There will be the writ of the government in Malakand, but it should not interfere in the new Islamic justice system,” he added.

While Muhammad has in past interviews decried the very concept of democracy, he took a softer tone when asked if elections would be allowed in the region.

“Islamic law and politics are different things. It is for the government to take decisions about political matters,” he said.

A great deal remains unclear about how Islamic law will be dispensed in the region. Already, a handful of judges trained in such religious jurisprudence have been hearing cases.

On Tuesday, Muhammad was adamant that the new Islamic courts would not hear grievances against militants’ activities over the past two years.

“Past things will be left behind and we will go for a new life in peace,” Muhammad told the ARY television channel.

Kerry’s visit came ahead of a donors’ conference for Pakistan in Tokyo later this week.

He chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is spearheading a bill to increase U.S. nonmilitary aid to Pakistan _ a multibillion-dollar plan to strengthen sectors such as education in a bid to lessen the allure of extremism.

The Pakistani government must make some “basic decisions,” including where and how much of its army it will deploy against al-Qaida and Taliban fighters in its northwest, Kerry said.

The army has long devoted far more resources to its eastern border with longtime rival India.

“I don’t think that the effort has been resourced the way that it needs to be either in the personnel or the strategy,” Kerry said. “The government has to ratchet up the urgency.”

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