Pakistan's Rocky Peace Hits Bump

A pro-Taliban cleric has pulled out of a fragile peace accord between the Pakistani government and Taliban militants in western Pakistan.

Sufi Mohammad expressed his frustration with the peace process, stating that the government's promise to implement Islamic law, or sharia, in the Swat Valley had not been fulfilled.

The deal, brokered in February, had prompted a cease-fire, halting more than a year of bloodshed in the embattled Swat Valley, a one-time tourist haven, dubbed the Switzerland of the East by various travel guides.

Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari has agreed to allow the practice of sharia law in Swat on the condition that law and order is first restored in the region. Muhammad, who had been camped out in the valley's main town of Mingora with hundreds of black-turbaned supporters, uprooted Thursday in protest of Zardari's "negative attitude."

"From now on, President Zardari will be responsible for any situation in Swat," the white-bearded cleric told reporters. "The provincial government is sincere, and our agreement with the provincial government is intact, but we are ending our peace camp."

Militants rearmed and pushed into a neighboring area this week 60 miles northwest of Islamabad, where they clashed with villagers and police.

One Swat-based reporter, speaking today on the condition of anonymity, said, "There is a lot of uncertainty and fear among residents since this announcement happened," adding, "things were much better for the past few weeks since this deal took place, so it is terrible to think that fighting may return to this area."

The heat is now on Pakistan's government to find a solution to its militant problem before it threatens to destabilize the nuclear-armed state.

Suspected militants ambushed a convoy in the northwest's Kurram tribal agency this week, killing a security guard and wounding six other people, including the area's top government official. Militants also planted a bomb in Khyber Agency that destroyed six tankers supplying fuel to NATO troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

Calls for Sharia Law in Swat

"Right now, there are so many terrorists, al Qaeda based people, there are so many bombs and mortar holes in Swat," said Rayat Allah Khan, the director of the Female Human Rights Organization for Swat. "There is so much ammunition in the valley that threatens to destroy the entire area."

Until its unification with Pakistan in 1969, the Swat Valley had observed its own tribal system of governance.

Longtime calls for a return to a sharia-based system as an alternative to Pakistan's drawn-out federal legal proceedings may have contributed to the rise of jihadist preacher Maulana Fazlullah, the son-in-law of Sufi Mohammed, and the valley's subsequent Talibanization, mirroring that of nearby Afghanistan.

Once a hot spot for tourists from around the world, women have been banned from walking the streets of much of the region in recent years. Hundreds of girls' schools have been blown up by militants who regard female education as un-Islamic.

Hinna Khan, 14, was among the girls forced to stay home after Taliban militants banned on female education. She claims that militants would patrol the streets of her town, threatening to throw acid in the faces of young girls who tried to attend classes. Her family fled to Islamabad last year so that she and her three younger sisters could live in safety.

"They are not scared of blood," she said. "They kill people in open, like you would sacrifice an animal. They are not warmhearted; they fire openly and detonate bombs."

But many say the crossfire between militants and armed forces is to blame for more than 1,500 deaths in recent years. Thousands more people have fled for their lives since fighting began in late 2007.

"Things in Swat are so bad that these people don't have money for food or fare. Its like living life in jail," Khan of the Female Human Rights Organization said. "The government of Pakistan has provided no help to the people of Swat."

U.S. Worried About Pakistani Concessions to Taliban

U.S. and NATO officials have expressed concern that the Pakistani military, spread thin by the year-long offensive, is now making concessions to the Taliban.

While military operations have been widely unpopular among Pakistanis, previous efforts to broker a deal with militants diplomatically have fallen short. In 2006, a ceasefire under former military ruler Pervez Musharraf with militants in South Waziristan was blamed for giving Taliban and al Qaeda forces a stronger foothold in the region.

After a meeting with President Zardari in Islamabad Tuesday, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke said that the situation in Swat had helped persuade more of Pakistan's political elite to team up with American in its battle against extremism.

A number of attacks in recent weeks have raised concerns that the threat of extremism is now spreading beyond the beleaguered border region with Afghanistan. A deadly ambush on a police training facility outside the relatively safe city of Lahore last week sparked fears that extremists have penetrated Pakistan's largest cities.

Pakistan's chief justice expressed outrage last week about an online video that shows suspected Swat-based Taliban militants flogging a 17-year old girl for an alleged affair. Now under investigation for authenticity, the video sparked fresh concerns that the implementation of sharia law will embolden hardliners to carry out merciless punishments, particularly where women are concerned.

Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's former information minister and prominent member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, said that while she holds reservations about the implementation of sharia law in Swat, it may be the only option for peace.

"I worry about sharia law because it often manifests in the extreme ways, in ways we don't read in the Koran," she said. "If the only way to achieve peace is through a partnership with the Taliban, then so be it. But if they are going to do anything in partnership, then there needs to be absolute clarity as to what form of law you have because it is important to have uniform laws."