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Pivotal test of Pakistan’s will against extremists

Times Staff Writer

On the thickly forested hillsides, puffs of white smoke mark the sites of artillery strikes. The winding mountain road is full of rattletrap trucks and buses piled high with tables and bedding, the possessions of fleeing families.

War has come to this scenic highland valley. After months of escalating tensions, Pakistani troops are finally moving to confront a charismatic pro-Taliban cleric and his followers, who have established a virtual ministate only 100 miles from the federal capital, Islamabad.

U.S. officials are closely monitoring the situation in the northwestern district of Swat, a picturesque former princely state. Islamic militants, employing tactics used in the tribal borderlands, have overrun villages here, beheading security personnel and imposing their own harsh brand of Islamic law.

Western military observers consider the confrontation a pivotal one, possibly presaging a much wider push by Pakistani and foreign militants out of the largely lawless tribal belt along the Afghanistan border and into so-called settled areas, where Pakistan’s federal government is supposed to have authority.

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But many observers believe the army’s tactics will backfire, causing civilian casualties while failing to dislodge the militants.

“Artillery and helicopter gunships -- it’s like shadow-boxing from a distance,” said retired Maj. Gen. Naseerullah Babar, a former interior minister who has overseen counter-insurgency efforts in the tribal areas. “They’ll just melt away. It won’t work.”

President Pervez Musharraf said his Nov. 3 emergency decree would bolster the government in its fight against militants. But in the three weeks of emergency rule, the insurgency in Swat has gained momentum, with militants in control of at least nine of 12 subdivisions in the valley, local and military officials said.

Fighting has spilled into the adjacent district of Shangla, where the insurgents loyal to Maulana Qazi Fazlullah are also gaining ground. From their base at his seminary camp in the village of Imam Dheri, they have seized the district’s administrative center and are threatening the famed Karakoram Highway, the crucial link to China.

The Pakistani military says it has sent in 15,000 army troops to confront Fazlullah, 32, who is thought to have as many as 5,000 armed followers. But in Swat’s towns and villages, there is little sign of the army presence.

“They’re up there, far away,” one local man said of the troops, pointing to clusters of tents on the ridgelines of distant hills. “While we down here suffer.”

Residents feel trapped between the militants and the army. A lively octogenarian named Miangul Aurangzeb, son of the last prince of Swat, displayed a white plastic bag full of shrapnel and bullets he had gathered near the family’s ancestral home in Saidu Sharif, adjacent to the district’s main town of Mingora, both of which are still under government control.

“They are just shooting randomly,” said Aurangzeb, who was the heir apparent until Pakistan abolished princely states in 1969.

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There are ambivalent feelings here about the militants. Fazlullah has an enormous and devout following, drawing on conservative religious traditions that predate Swat’s absorption into Pakistan. When he presides over Friday prayers, the most important of the week, he draws tens of thousands of worshipers.

But some residents draw a distinction between Fazlullah, a native son, and the foreign fighters -- Uzbeks, Tajiks and Chechens -- who they say have joined his ranks. These foreigners, they say, are more fanatical, and far more ready to mete out cruel punishment to villagers whose behavior is deemed insufficiently Islamic.

In recent months, the militants have bombed girls’ schools, ordered women to wear head-to-toe burkas, burned video and music stores to the ground, and threatened barbers who trim beards. In another echo of the Taliban’s former rule in Afghanistan, the insurgents have twice tried to blow up first-century Buddhist monuments that are considered cultural treasures.

Fazlullah has an rigidly austere vision of Islam, laid out via fiery sermons on his pirate FM radio station. They have earned him the nicknames “Mullah Radio” or “the FM Mullah.”

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He has railed against girls’ education and ordered followers not to allow polio vaccinations for their children, calling them a Zionist plot to sterilize Muslims. When he preached against the evils of television, thousands of villagers burned their sets.

“That was striking to me, that these very, very poor people, instead of just getting rid of their TVs, selling them, would drag them out and burn them,” said Aurangzeb’s son Adnan, a former lawmaker.

He said he became aware of the power of Fazlullah’s message several years ago when he was making constituency calls in the countryside. “Out in these small villages, where there was nothing, there wasn’t a household that didn’t listen to him on the radio,” he said.

That Fazlullah is still broadcasting is a signal to some that the government is not serious about moving against him -- particularly since officials, in the initial weeks of emergency rule, knocked private television channels off the air.

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“So he’s out here with a cheap Chinese transmitter, and they can’t deal with that?” a Western military official said. “That strains credulity.”

Although poor, remote and populated by ethnic Pashtuns, Swat, with a population of about 1.2 million, is culturally and socially distinct from the nearby tribal areas. Until recently, the valley was home to a thriving tourist industry that drew foreigners as well as Pakistanis. Visitors flocked to its mountain scenery, its trout streams and a resort featuring the country’s only ski lift.

To residents who had hoped the area would continue to develop economically, the militant takeover has been a devastating blow.

“All business is ruined; not just tourism, everything is finished,” said Afzal Khan, a hotelier who fled his home village of Matta. “There’s no Pakistani government, only a Taliban one.”

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Residents say poverty, together with widespread corruption, helped set the stage for the militant takeover.

“If a poor man went to the police for help, the only thing they would say was, ‘First you must give us money,’ ” said a man from Matta who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When Fazlullah’s men came, they seemed honest and upright. Everyone liked that.”

The Musharraf government, as it often has in its dealings with militants, has sent mixed signals. Even while massing troops and insisting that it will expel the militants, it has made significant concessions, including the release of Maulana Sufi Mohammed, a radical cleric who is Fazlullah’s father-in-law.

Mohammed founded the now-banned Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, which fought for imposing Islamic law in Swat in 1994 and sent supporters to help the Taliban during the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. The elder cleric was jailed in 2002, and Fazlullah took up his mantle.

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In the villages under their control, the militants roam freely, identifiable by their Taliban-style turbans, long flowing hair and camouflage vests over their shalwar kameez, the traditional long tunic and baggy pants. But they are also capable of vanishing swiftly into their mountain hide-outs if they feel threatened, villagers say.

The Pakistani army says it will retake the district. “The concept is to clear the Swat Valley as soon as possible,” Maj. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha told reporters at army headquarters in Rawalpindi this month.

But the army has not moved decisively against Fazlullah’s fortified seminary compound. His fighters also easily turned away an initial thrust by about 3,000 mostly paramilitary troops sent to the region in late October. Within days of their arrival, a suicide attacker struck a military convoy in Mingora, killing at least 20.

Since the paramilitary troops began raids against the militants, the insurgents have abducted and beheaded more than a dozen officials and security personnel, who they alleged were U.S. spies.

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The militants also captured and paraded nearly 50 paramilitary troops, most of them fellow Pashtuns, and freed them when they promised to leave the fight and return home.

The army says more than 100 militants have been killed in the last week, mainly in artillery bombardment. Local officials, though, say those claims are exaggerated, and that significant numbers of those killed are civilians.

“Civilians are afraid of fire from the helicopters,” said Ubaidur Rehman, an elder from the overrun village of Matta. “People are fleeing, running for their lives.”

Many observers believe that Fazlullah’s followers are too entrenched to be driven off permanently. At most, they say, the militants will retreat, but return when it suits them, perhaps in greater force.

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“It’s as if there were a small fire burning, and then when they don’t put it out, they are surprised when it becomes a big fire,” said Miangul Aurangzeb.

Babar, the retired general, said the signs of trouble in Swat had been plain to see for the last year or more.

“They waited until too late,” he said of the government. “Much, much too late.”

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laura.king@latimes.com


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