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Pakistani government gambles on peace talks with militants
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    ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As power shifts in Pakistan from U.S. anti-terrorism ally President Pervez Musharraf, the new government is gambling on peace talks with Islamic militants to push back the tide of violent extremism.
    It’s a strategy backed by the majority of Pakistan’s 160 million people, exhausted by bloodshed many blame on Musharraf’s forceful tactics against the Taliban and al-Qaida along the Afghan border.
    Initial results are encouraging: There has been only one major bombing in the past five weeks. However, U.S. officials note that past peace deals failed and new accords could simply give militants time to rebuild and plan attacks in Afghanistan and the West.
    The talks appear snagged over militant demands for the army to withdraw from the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border.
    A senior official urged militants to show flexibility. ‘‘At the moment, the withdrawal of troops from the tribal areas is next to impossible,’’ said Haider Khan Hoti, chief minister of North West Frontier Province. ‘‘Once there is peace and stability in the area there can be a dialogue on such demands.’’
    Musharraf, who retired as army chief in November and saw his political allies routed in February elections, has been pushed to the periphery.
    As president, he retains the title of commander in chief of the armed forces, but his successor as army boss, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, is taking orders from the civilian rulers, Kayani’s spokesman says.
    Musharraf’s power will fade further if the new ruling coalition amends the constitution and strips him of the authority to dissolve parliament.
    ‘‘I don’t think the government needs to involve the president’’ in its counterterrorism policy, said presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi, a longtime Musharraf aide.
    The U.S. is adjusting to the new political reality.
    Its diplomats are reaching out to the new administration, led by the party of slain former leader Benazir Bhutto. Washington agreed last year to co-fund a development program for the border zone. A spate of airstrikes there widely blamed on U.S. drones has come to a halt.
    But the freeing last week of a cleric who sent thousands of volunteers to fight for the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and efforts to hatch a peace pact with militants in South Waziristan have prompted wary responses from the U.S.
    ‘‘The problem has been that many times, those deals are reached and they’re not enforced,’’ Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher said. ‘‘It’s got to be done with a way to make sure it produces results.’’
    Musharraf’s regime also tried to talk to the Taliban after its use of military force against al-Qaida hideouts provoked a violent response from militant tribesmen opposed to the deployment of the Pakistan army in their domain.
    The subsequent peace deals struck in 2005 and 2006 in Waziristan — including one with Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban leader in Pakistan — broke down last year. Cross-border attacks on U.S. forces in Afghanistan spiked, and American officials claimed al-Qaida leaders had been able to regroup.
    The army pushed back into Waziristan in July 2007, and militants responded with about 50 suicide bombings in nine months, including the December attack that killed Bhutto — an assault Musharraf’s government and the CIA both said was the work of Mehsud’s network.
    A Pakistani intelligence official told The Associated Press that a draft deal now under negotiation included a commitment from the Mahsud tribe — of which Mehsud is a member — to stop attacks on government targets and prevent their territory from being used as a base for terrorism elsewhere.
    The tribe would evict foreign militants, while the government would gradually withdraw the army and exchange prisoners, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his job.
    Last time around, tribal elders lacked the muscle to enforce such terms. Their command over the region’s conservative Pashtun society was diluted in recent years as ruthless militants gained sway and assassinated dozens of pro-government tribesmen.
    But some say conditions for dialogue are now more favorable.
    Unlike Musharraf’s unpopular regime, which set policy without consulting lawmakers, the new government has a strong popular mandate.
    Musharraf ‘‘was fighting this proxy war of America,’’ said Javed Hashmi, a close aide to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a key coalition leader.
    ‘‘We are talking to the tribal chiefs, and America definitely has its reservations, but we are not bothered,’’ said Hashmi. ‘‘We think our people should be with us.’’
    The situation may also have changed in the tribal regions.
    Ikram Sehgal, a defense analyst, said Mehsud was weakened by military operations in January. The tribe, whose business smuggling goods over the border was also disrupted, could expel him from the area if the talks succeed, Sehgal said.
    Initial successes could mollify Washington and buy the government time to work out what to do next.
    Bhutto’s party has been careful not to offend the U.S., which has given more than $10 billion in aid to Pakistan since it joined the war on terrorist groups after the Sept. 11 attacks. It insists the government will not make peace with ‘‘terrorists.’’
    Yet the coalition’s political honeymoon could soon end.
    It must resolve differences over how to restore independent-minded judges who were unseated by Musharraf. Public anger is growing over hours-long power outages and spiraling food prices.
    And if peace talks fail, a bloody militant backlash could trigger political disarray and encourage American forces in Afghanistan to mount more cross-border operations.
    Many doubt the secular government can extract meaningful concessions from battle-hardened Islamic fundamentalists.
    ‘‘How can you have peace negotiations with people who ideologically believe in something else and will fight for it?’’ said Najam Sethi, editor of the Daily Times newspaper. ‘‘If things heat up again, I don’t expect the Americans to keep sitting back.’’
    Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad, Ishtiaq Mehsud in Dera Ismail Khan and Riaz Khan in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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