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Crowned Pakistan hawks betray Taliban colours

Peshawar, Nov. 29 (Reuters): Hardline Islamists opposed to the US military presence in Pakistan took power in a province bordering Afghanistan today and immediately called for a ban on music on public transport to be enforced.

“I urge the public transport owners to stop playing music and movies during journeys,” said Muhammad Akram Durrani, the newly-elected chief minister of the North West Frontier Province who represents the six-party Islamic alliance.

He also called on public transport to be stopped five times a day for Muslim prayers and ordered the local administration to strongly impose bans on alcohol and gambling — already illegal in Islamic Pakistan.

Deputies of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) Islamic-party alliance in the province’s assembly greeted the success of their candidate with shouts of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest). Durrani got 78 of the 119 votes polled. His closest rival won 41.

The alliance made huge gains in last month’s election by tapping popular opposition to the US-led war on terror that toppled the Taliban regime in neighbouring Afghanistan. It also campaigned for the imposition of Islamic Shariah Law in Pakistan.

A ban on music on public transport already exists under Pakistan traffic laws but it is often ignored. Similarly, though alcohol is illegal for Muslims, non-Muslim minorities can buy and consume it.

The Islamic alliance’s electoral gains raised concerns in the West that it could undermine President Pervez Musharraf’s support for the US-led war on terror and the hunt for remnants of the Taliban and their al Qaida allies in Pakistan.

US forces are using some remote Pakistani air bases and a small number of US agents are helping Pakistani authorities hunt for al Qaida and Taliban members in Pakistan.

But political observers and officials played down the concerns, saying the Islamists have little say over key tribal regions where many fugitives are thought to be hiding.

The alliance has also emerged as the largest group in the assembly of southwestern Baluchistan, the other province bordering Afghanistan, although it does not have a majority.

The pro-military Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam (PML-QA) led by Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali had a majority in the National Assembly of just one vote, despite the defection of 10 members of the anti-military Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

But the withdrawal of support for Jamali by partner Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), an influential regional group in southern Pakistan, less than a week after he was sworn in has forced the ruling party to try to court the Islamic alliance again.

The defection of the MQM’s 16 members in the National Assembly could undermine Jamali’s bid to win a mandatory confidence vote that has to be held in the next two months. His success could now depend on winning the MMA’s backing.

PML-QA powerbroker Chaudhry Shujaat Hussein met the alliance secretary general, firebrand Islamist and pro-Taliban Fazal-ur-Rehman, on Wednesday to seek support for the government.

But the religious right demands Musharraf quits the army and reverses sweeping constitutional changes made before the election that gave him extensive powers after handing over to a civilian government, ending three years of military rule.

The prospect of the anti-US Islamists joining the civilian government had alarmed financial markets, sending the Karachi Stock Exchange benchmark down 2 per cent on Wednesday, although it recovered most of the losses yesterday.

Political analysts did not see imminent danger of defeat for Jamali, who has stressed that he wants to continue Musharraf’s key foreign and economic policies.

They say the MQM’s announcement could be a ploy to win maximum concessions from Jamali’s party as it tries to form a coalition in the southern Sindh province.

As expected, the Jamali’s party won the election for chief minister in the most populous Punjab province today, securing 235 votes out of 337. His rival won 102.

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