| An Assembly member holds prayer beads during the first session of the House in Peshawar on Monday. (AFP)
Islamabad, Nov. 25 (Reuters): The hardline Islamic bloc set to govern the strategic Pakistani province bordering Afghanistan said today local authorities did not need US support to hunt down al Qaida and Taliban operatives.
The comments, by a senior leader of the the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) coalition, came as the provincial Assembly of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), where the religious Right has an outright majority, was sworn in.
The MMA posted huge gains in an October election by tapping anti-US sentiment, especially in areas near the Afghan border. That is where American troops are hunting for members of Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime and the al Qaida network. The MMA’s gains raised concern in the West that the six-party alliance, which includes fiery pro-Taliban clerics, could undermine Islamabad’s support for the US-led war on terror in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan.
The MMA, likely to formally take power in the NWFP next week, has also vowed to push through a strict Islamic social agenda which could affect education, particularly of girls, the dress code and media access.
“There is no need for help from American forces or FBI agents or other US agencies,” said Liaquat Baluch, deputy head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party which is in the MMA.
“If there is a need to control terrorism, then Pakistani forces are in a position to control these people, and there is no need for support from outside,” he said.
But a political analyst with good knowledge of Islamic groups in Pakistan said there was little the MMA could do to hamper the US pursuit of targets along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The NWFP government has little say in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where many Taliban and al Qaida fighters are likely to have fled from Afghanistan and where Pakistani paramilitary forces are cooperating with US personnel. Even within the NWFP, local government’s powers are limited.
“The scope of the MMA’s authority in NWFP is limited, and excludes the use of the armed forces,” said the analyst, who asked not to be named. “Except for controlling the police, all they can do is bring social changes like forcing bureaucrats to attend prayers.”
On a national level, the new pro-military government led by Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali has stressed it wants to continue President Pervez Musharraf’s key foreign and economic policies now that civilian rule has been restored three years after a military coup.
“I would like to draw your attention to the observation made by the Prime Minister that there would be continuity in Pakistan's foreign policy,” foreign ministry spokesman Aziz Ahmed Khan said.
Musharraf has enhanced his own powers, extending his term by five years and giving himself the right to dismiss parliament, thereby reassuring Western leaders who count him as a key ally in the international anti-terror campaign.
But the rise of the religious Right in Pakistan underlines the resistance in many areas to Musharraf’s decision to back the US campaign in Afghanistan, in contrast to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban until last year’s September 11 attacks.
At the opening of the NWFP provincial Assembly in Peshawar today, members held prayers for Mir Aimal Kansi, the Pakistani executed this month in the US for killing two CIA employees. The fact that the tribal areas and much of NWFP are already deeply conservative means that the MMA's social agenda is seen as having only a limited impact on the lives of ordinary people.