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Musharraf's War on Religious Extremism Draws Criticism - 2003-12-13

Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, a key ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, continues to take steps to eliminate religious extremism in the country. But critics are skeptical about his motives and the effectiveness of the crackdown, saying extremism can only be defeated when true democracy is restored to the country.

President Musharraf says extremist religious forces have become "the greatest threat" to Pakistan, and they must be defeated.

He has outlawed several militant Islamic groups in recent months, blaming them for attacks on Western and Christian targets in the country. The government has sealed the offices of these banned organizations and has frozen more than 20 bank accounts held by them.

Since joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism, Pakistan has captured more than 500 suspects linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network and has handed most of them over to the United States.

But Mr. Musharraf's critics say these measures still may not curb extremism. Khalid Rehman, executive director of Islamabad's Institute of Policy Studies, says most Pakistanis see the campaign against Islamic groups as the result of U.S. pressure.

"The government has not come up with any solid evidence in any court of law about these organizations," he noted. "And unless that is done, there will be apprehensions about the intention of the government, and the action would not be really acceptable to the people."

Opposition politicians like Ehsan Iqbal say the president is responsible for the rise in Islamic militancy in recent years. They say that since taking power in a military coup in 1999, General Musharraf has barred major liberal and progressive parties from political activity, leaving the field to Islamic extremists.

"He has created space for these extreme groups to grow, to grow an influence," said Ehsan Iqbal. "Now he is saying to the West that 'I am curbing it.' Militancy is directly proportional to lack of democracy in the country. I think the biggest and the most effective tool to fight or curb militancy is to restore genuine democracy in Pakistan."

Political parties were banned from public activities until, under international pressure, President Musharraf allowed parliamentary elections to be held in October last year.

But he has not fully transferred powers to the elected government, even though it supports him, and he has the power to dismiss it.

He also pushed through a package of controversial constitutional amendments, allowing him to remain head of the army while continuing to serve as president for the next five years.