Pakistan lawmakers gather for debate on counter-terror strategy


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Pakistani lawmakers were heading into a debate Wednesday over the government’s tough line against terrorism amid rising violence between security forces and Islamic militants.

The government called a special session of parliament to seek consensus on how to stabilize this nuclear-armed Islamic republic, which is beset by serious economic problems as well as insecurity.

Pro-Western President Asif Ali Zardari has been urging ordinary Pakistanis to recognize the danger that Taliban and al-Qaida-linked extremists pose to their country, especially since last month’s suicide truck bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel.

But many here blame the seven-year-old U.S.-led war on terror and their country’s front-line role in it for the bloodshed and argue that their country should not be fighting “America’s war.”

Pakistan’s civilian government blames the often contradictory policies of former president and military ruler Pervez Musharraf for the rising power of radical Islamic groups nested along the country’s border with Afghanistan.

Its stated policy differs little, focusing on peace with militants who renounce violence, development aid for the impoverished border region and military force as a last resort.

However, the government, bolstered by a popular mandate won in February elections, insists it will show no mercy to hard-liners and that it has addressed suspicion that Pakistan’s main intelligence agency was secretly aiding the Taliban.

The joint session of the upper and lower houses of parliament that was set to begin Wednesday is to include a closed-door briefing by an army general on ongoing operations in militant strongholds near the Afghan border.

U.S. officials concerned about the intensifying insurgency in Afghanistan have praised a two-month-old offensive in the Bajur region that the Pakistani military claims has killed more than 1,000 insurgents.

Government officials said the parliamentary session was an effort to include opposition parties in the policy discussion and that their proposals would get a hearing.

“We are fighting the war against terrorism and we will welcome any good advice or suggestion from the parliamentarians,” Law Minister Farooq Naek said.

In a boost to hopes of building a national consensus, a senior opposition leader said Tuesday that Pakistan needed to “eliminate terrorists.”

“Either we will survive or they will survive,” Shahbaz Sharif, the brother of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, said after visiting survivors of a suicide bombing that injured a party lawmaker and killed 17 other people on Monday.

“We will soon come up with a better strategy to fight this menace,” Shahbaz Sharif said, without elaborating.

However, analysts warn that the government could quickly lose its popularity if the violence continues to intensify and daunting economic problems push more people into poverty.

Zardari, whose party leads the coalition government, has also pleaded with Washington to halt cross-border operations into Pakistan’s border areas, saying they only fuel sympathy for extremists.

Pakistan’s pro-Taliban religious parties are already wooing the disaffected and on Tuesday stepped up their agitation against the army operation in Bajur as well as Islamabad’s ties with Washington.

“Why do we get American aid? For development? No. We get it to bomb our own people,” Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party, said at the outset of a tour of the country to protest runaway inflation.