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Pakistan Holds Peace Talks with Tribal Leaders

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Iraq is not the only place where the future may rest on armed groups with murky allegiances and murky goals. In Pakistan, the government is trying to find a new way to deal with tribal leaders. Those leaders hold great power in the areas near Afghanistan where extremist groups are based.

Pakistan's new government is now holding peace talks with tribal elders, and today a Pakistani newspaper reports that talks are moving closer to success. Here's NPR's Philip Reeves.

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Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

PHILIP REEVES: A line of white-clad men stand side by side in a field. They're praying before a coffin. There have been many funerals around here in recent months on the plains that lead to the Kyber Pass and the mountains that separate Pakistan's untamed western frontier from Afghanistan.

The area's been the focus of a suicide bombing campaign by Islamist extremists. Hundreds have died. But this funeral is for a prominent local dignitary who died peacefully. The men look unusually relaxed, despite the scorching sun.

The bombings have mostly stopped, at least for now. The Pakistani Taliban's called a ceasefire while peace negotiations go on between the government and tribal elders from Waziristan. Peace agreements have been tried before and failed. This time there's some new players on the scene.

Two months ago the Islamist parties who ran the provincial government were kicked out by the electorate and replaced by a Pashtun nationalist party, the ANP.

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(Soundbite of praying)

REEVES: Some of the ANP's senior members are among the mourners today, including Kwaja Mohamed Kahn Harti(ph). Harti says his party knows how to reach out to the tribal militants, not least because the party seeks to champion their ethnicity.

Mr. KWAJA MOHAMED KAHN HARTI: He's a Pashtun and I'm a Pashtun. I shall sit down and talk with him. You have to make them believe that we and you are brothers and we are alike and we are a part of each other.

REEVES: Political analyst Khalid Aziz(ph) is from the tribal areas and for years worked as a government political agent there. He thinks the election of Pashtun nationalists helps in peacemaking.

Mr. KHALID AZIZ (Political Analyst): They have linkages, they understand each other. It makes getting an agreement easier.

REEVES: The talks are with elders from the Mesud(ph) tribe in south Waziristan, one of the most hard-line areas. One member of that tribe is Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Taliban in Pakistan and head of an umbrella group of militants.

The CIA and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf say Baitullah Mehsud was behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, although many Pakistanis are unconvinced. The U.S. is worried that if the Taliban and al-Qaida are no longer fighting the Pakistani army, more militants will be able to set off to fight in Afghanistan. They say that's what happened before.

The proposed peace deal requires Pakistan's army to pull back from south Waziristan, in return for promises that the tribes will stop attacking the government, throw out foreign militants and end infiltration to Afghanistan.

U.S. officials want Pakistan to ensure any agreement it strikes with the tribes produces concrete results. Khalid Aziz, the veteran of the tribal areas, agrees a peace agreement brings some risk. In fact, he thinks it could mean more militants infiltrate into Afghanistan and that they may rearm. But he doesn't believe Pakistan has much choice but to try to find a solution. He says the war with the militants exacted too high a price, severely damaging the Pakistani army's morale and threatening the stability of the entire country.

Mr. AZIZ: So the equation that is coming up is whether you give more credence to protection of the larger interests of war on terror or to look after survival within Pakistan. Because if you lose the structures within Pakistan, there won't be anything left to protect.

REEVES: Aziz believes the problem in the tribal areas is profound poverty. He says it's time for fundamental reforms, though it's hard to understand the enormity of that task. But that's a way off. In the meantime, the U.S.'s position has become more complicated.

Before, when Musharraf was in direct charge of Pakistan's government and the military, Washington knew whom to pressure. Now it must deal with a fragile coalition government and a separate army chief.

Hamid Dullah Jan Alfreedi(ph) is a government minister and from the tribal areas. He thinks it's time for the U.S. to back off.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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