By Griff Witte and Imtiaz Ali
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 16, 2007
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, July 15 -- A controversial peace deal between the Pakistani government and local tribal leaders in an area where al-Qaeda is known to be regrouping appeared to collapse Sunday, as tensions escalated and a fresh wave of bombings killed at least 44 people.
The 10-month-old deal in the restive region of North Waziristan was designed to curb cross-border attacks against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. But it has been widely criticized by security analysts and, lately, U.S. officials, who said it provided terrorist groups including the Taliban and al-Qaeda with a safe haven in which to train recruits and plot attacks.
On Sunday, local Taliban fighters proclaimed the deal dead and announced the start of an all-out guerrilla war against the Pakistani army. Pakistani officials stopped short of conceding the agreement's demise, but the military has been moving tens of thousands of troops toward troubled spots along the border in recent days, after the president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, last week announced a new crackdown on extremism.
Military officials said the troops were being deployed in a bid to keep the peace following last week's raid on the Red Mosque in Islamabad. That effort appeared to be breaking down Sunday, as security forces continued to take heavy losses in a series of attacks that killed more than 70 people over the weekend. Most of those killed were soldiers or police.
The most recent attack occurred Sunday afternoon, when a suicide bomber targeted a room full of hundreds of police recruits taking an entrance exam in the city of Dera Ismail Khan. The blast killed at least 26 people and wounded 60, security officials said.
Earlier in the day, a military convoy in the Swat Valley was targeted by insurgents who unleashed two suicide bombers and a roadside bomb. Eighteen people were killed in those blasts, and 47 were wounded.
On Saturday, troops were attacked in North Waziristan, despite the peace deal, and at least 24 were killed. A purported spokesman for Taliban fighters said that the government had violated the terms of the deal by setting up checkpoints in the area. Residents of North Waziristan have also reported that the government has raided suspected militant hideouts.
The spokesman, Abdullah Farhan, said in a telephone interview that the group had given the government until Sunday to remove the checkpoints. When the government did not comply, the Taliban declared war, he said.
"We are ending the agreement today," said a statement circulated by the fighters in North Waziristan's district center, Miram Shah.
Pakistani government officials on Sunday accused the fighters of violating terms of the deal and said local leaders would be held responsible. They were vague about the deal's future.
When the agreement was signed in September, Musharraf touted it as a way to use local tribal influence to stem the tide of extremism in Pakistan. According to the terms of the deal, leaders in the area agreed to police their neighborhoods and prevent fighters from launching cross-border raids into Afghanistan. In return, the Pakistani military volunteered to withdraw troops to their barracks after five years of conflict in which hundreds of soldiers were killed.
As recently as this spring, government officials had been pointing to clashes between local militias and foreign fighters as evidence that the deal was working. The tribes, officials said, appeared to be banding together to oust Uzbeks, Chechens and other fighters who had been sheltered in the region.
But criticism of the deal has grown in recent months. U.S. and NATO troops have confronted escalating violence in Afghanistan, with much of it traced back across the border into Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistani tribal areas have increasingly come under the Taliban's sway, with the group using force to push its extreme vision of Islamic law.
The apparent collapse of the agreement came after U.S. intelligence officials reported last week that al-Qaeda was reestablishing itself in ungoverned areas in Pakistan. In a series of televised interviews Sunday, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley identified the North Waziristan deal as part of the problem Musharraf faces in attempting to confront extremism.
"It has not worked the way he wanted," Hadley said Sunday in an interview on the ABC program "This Week." "It has not worked the way we wanted."
Musharraf, who also leads the army and is considered a crucial U.S. counterterrorism ally, is facing growing challenges to his eight-year rule. In recent months, he has come under assault from extremists who consider him a pawn of the United States, and moderates who want a return to a civilian, democratic government in Pakistan.
The moderates have also criticized Musharraf for not doing enough to counter extremism.
Last week, however, he ordered a raid on a mosque in Islamabad where clerics had been pushing for a theocratic government modeled after the Taliban rule in Afghanistan.
Since then, the raid has become a rallying cry among hard-line religious leaders who have accused the government of covering up the true death count. The government has said that fewer than 100 people died in the raid, while hard-liners have alleged the toll was far higher.
"The Red Mosque was a created problem," said Hafiz Riaz Durrani, information secretary for the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami party. "America pressured Musharraf to take action, and he pressured the armed forces to take action against the Islamists."
Ali reported from Peshawar, Pakistan. Special correspondent Shahzad Khurram in Islamabad contributed to this report.