Islamists pull back in Pakistan, or is it just for the cameras?

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Armed Taliban extremists began what they said was a pull-out Friday from Buner, just 60 miles from Islamabad, after they raised an international alarm by moving within striking distance of cutting off the capital from the country's northwest.

The masked gunmen allowed film crews in to film their withdrawal, but there were serious doubts in both Islamabad and Washington that they had given up their plans to expand from the district of Swat, where the government conceded effective power to them.

U.S. counter-terrorism officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the situation publicly, said other militants were secretly taking steps to strengthen their presence in areas nearer Islamabad, such as Mardan, which was close to the main highway linking Islamabad with the northwest province.

"It remains to be seen how genuine this purported pullback really is," said one U.S. counter-terrorism official.

Islamabad remained on edge, with the Taliban close to its outskirts and thousands of extremists in Islamabad again converging on its radical Red Mosque, whose firebrand imam, just out of jail, is agitating for an Islamic revolution.

There were signs that the government might tear up the peace deal, which ceded Swat to Taliban control, and that the Pakistan army, stung by criticism of its inaction, might launch a military operation in Swat. A senior official in the federal government, who couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, fumed: "Read the (peace) deal. They (the Taliban) have broken every promise written and unwritten".

The federal government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, is caught in a bind, as Swat is part of the Northwest Frontier Province administration, led by the Awami National Party, which appears determined to stick with the deal in which the Taliban promised peace in return for imposition of Islamic law.

Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Swat accord was an "abdication to the Taliban." Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, kept the pressure up Friday as he warned in an NBC television interview: "We're certainly moving closer to the tipping point (for Pakistan). . . . I'm increasingly both concerned and frustrated at the progression of the danger."

Authorities in the capital have called for 200 more paramilitary troops to beef up the city's security beyond the 1,500 already deployed. Both groups augment the 5,000 regular police officers, according to Asadullah Faiz, a senior city official. He said that some troops were deployed on the Margalla Hills, west of Islamabad, which would lie in the path of a Taliban advance towards Islamabad.

"These are preventative measures," said Faiz. "There's no information that there are Taliban in the Margalla Hills."

In recent months, Islamabad has taken on the look of a city in a war-zone, with roadblocks everywhere manned by armed soldiers. At roadsides, rifles of troops peep out from sand-bagged positions, and some buildings occupied by foreign or international organizations are so heavily blast-proofed that they cannot be seen from the road. Schools offering Western education have put up high walls and barbed-wire fencing, with security cameras and armed patrols.

The militants agreed to withdraw from Buner only after the government threatened to nullify the peace deal and Sufi Mohammad, the radical cleric who negotiated the agreement with the government, went to Buner to persuade the Taliban to disband.

Television from Buner Friday showed dozens of pick-up trucks with heavily armed militants, faces covered with scarves, starting to move out after invading the district more than two weeks ago.

"It's a tactical move," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a military analyst based in Lahore. "But they are not prepared to surrender their weapons or submit to state authority. They'll be back."

Pakistan's usually silent army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, put out a strongly worded statement Friday. He said the army "will not allow the militants to dictate terms to the government or impose their way of life on the civil society of Pakistan".

As many as 250 paramilitary troops were deployed in Buner this week in a belated but limited response to the Taliban incursion, but the army's big guns haven't been deployed. Many believe that Pakistan has relinquished the military option, having failed to defeat the Taliban in Swat during an on-off 18-month operation. Kayani, however, said the "operational pause, meant to give the reconciliatory forces a chance, must not be taken for a concession to the militants".

The Northwest provincial government said Friday that it will press on with imposition of Islamic law. "We will set up Islamic courts," said provincial information minister Mian Iftikhar. "Then there will be no reasons for any to take up weapons. But, if they don't disarm even then, there are other options."

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay and Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article from Washington.)


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