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Pakistanis suffer under militants

In no-go frontier areas where the Taliban and other Islamists are said to hold sway, there is an atmosphere of terror.

March 09, 2007|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN — For weeks, there had been whispers that Akhtar Usmani, a young teacher at a Muslim religious school, was speaking out against the growing presence of Islamic militants in his home in the tribal area of Waziristan.

Then one day last week, the schoolteacher's corpse, with the head severed from the torso, was found in a bloody sack dumped beside a desolate road. A note on his mutilated body called him a spy for America.

Such grisly reprisal killings have become a recurring feature of life in Waziristan, a rugged border zone that is in the global spotlight because of U.S. intelligence claims that elements of Al Qaeda are regrouping there

A little-noted corollary of the area's notoriety as a militant haven is the suffering of civilians who live and work there, say human rights groups, political analysts and Pakistani law enforcement officials. The killings are part of an atmosphere of terror enveloping many of the 4 million or so people living in North and South Waziristan and the other "tribal agencies," seven federally administered but essentially ungoverned areas adjoining the Pakistan-Afghanistan frontier.

Civilians there are increasingly subject to the stringent Islamic prohibitions and punishments of Taliban insurgents, foreign militants and members of radical Pakistani organizations, whose influence is breaking down traditional tribal leadership, people in the area say.

Barbers get warnings

In some locales, barbers are being warned against trimming beards. Singing and dancing are discouraged, and music has been banned. Motorists who play their car radios face fines or beatings. Schools, particularly those educating girls, operate under constant threat. Movie theaters have been ordered to close.

"With this phenomenon of 'Talibanization,' or militant religiosity, the first victims are always the local populations," said Ali Dayan Hasan, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"These people have absolutely no protection, and their most fundamental rights are violated daily."

In a report last month, the group urged that independent monitors be allowed to visit the tribal areas and document abuses. Most of the region, populated almost exclusively by Pashtun tribes, is a no-go zone for any outsider, even fellow Pakistanis.

No official reporting mechanism exists for violent crimes, such as the slayings of clerics and elders accused of sympathizing with the United States or the Pakistani government. But human rights activists say scores of such killings have occurred in the last year, including two more this week.

Adding to the tribal zone's woes, criminal gangs claiming allegiance to the militant groups routinely carry out kidnappings for ransom, extort protection money, hijack commercial trucks and smuggle weapons and drugs. In a recent brazen heist, militiamen stole a fire engine.

"Anyone can put on a black [Taliban] turban and claim they are acting in the name of Islam," said retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, a former chief of security in the tribal areas. "That's what many of these criminals are doing -- taking advantage of people's fear of standing up to the militias."

In some areas, the residents are fighting back. This week, armed tribesmen attacked Uzbek militants, setting off a gun battle that left at least 19 people dead.

Surrounded by extremism

Unrest in the tribal areas is steadily encroaching on the nearest big city, Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province, which lies outside the tribal belt but is the regional hub for jobs, supplies and services.

Peshawar, with its 2.2 million residents, is more diverse and cosmopolitan than the conservative villages surrounding it. But here too, "extremism is gaining ground," said Qibla Ayaz, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Peshawar.

Activists for women's rights say they feel particularly vulnerable amid the rising religious fundamentalism.

"Where there is a push toward a mullah state, we are the primary target," said Rukhshanda Naz, a lawyer who works with a Peshawar-based group that encourages women to participate in politics. Many Peshawar neighborhoods, particularly outlying districts, have become unsafe for her group's workers, she said.

Foreign and local aid organizations have been the subject of fiery sermons by tribal clerics, creating an atmosphere of intimidation that sharply hampers their ability to deliver essential services, such as healthcare, in remote areas where they are most needed.

Last month, a Pakistani doctor and his assistant were killed by a roadside bomb in the tribal area of Bajaur after they met with village elders to try to persuade them to allow a polio immunization campaign for children.

Mullahs had denounced the vaccinations as a foreign conspiracy to sterilize Muslims.

Despite the hardships the populace is enduring, there is a degree of grudging public support for the militants in the tribal areas, according to some who were born and raised there.

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