Pakistan seeks public backing against Taliban

Nation acts after deadly hotel bombing

A man removed a destroyed vehicle near the wreckage of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar yesterday. At least nine people were killed in the bombing at the luxury hotel Tuesday. A man removed a destroyed vehicle near the wreckage of the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar yesterday. At least nine people were killed in the bombing at the luxury hotel Tuesday. (Akhtar Soomro/ Reuters)
By Asif Shahzad
Associated Press / June 11, 2009
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ISLAMABAD - Pakistani officials moved swiftly yesterday to use the suicide bombing of a luxury hotel in their campaign to build public support for military offensives against the Taliban, saying the country is at war.

Past offensives against Islamist militants have resulted in backlashes as many Pakistanis concluded the only way to end the bloodshed and destruction was for the weak central government to strike a deal with the extremists - which it did as recently as this past spring in the Swat Valley, only to have an emboldened Taliban violate the agreement by seizing an adjacent district.

"This is a war, but the people of this country will not bow to the cowardly acts of terrorists. People are now seeing the real face of those who have been exploiting them in the name of Islam," North West Frontier Province senior minister Bashir Ahmad Bilour Bilour said.

Tuesday's attack on the Pearl Continental hotel in Peshawar killed at least nine people, a week after the Taliban threatened major attacks in large cities to avenge an army offensive to reclaim Swat.

"We will fight this war 'til our last breath," Bilour said. "They cannot break us. The whole nation is united."

Pakistan information minister Qamar Zaman Kaira used the same language: "The whole nation is united and backing the government and army in the fight against terrorists."

That is an overstatement, at least in the rugged, lawless tribal belt where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have carved out a sanctuary of entrenched strongholds with at least tacit blessings from tribal elders.

Still, interviews with people on the streets of Pakistan's three largest cities - Peshawar, Karachi, and Lahore - found nothing but contempt for the Taliban.

Mohammad Zubair, 32, a human resources employee at a Lahore construction company, called the Islamic militants "a mafia of criminals."

"They do not have anything to do with Islam. They are just exploiting our religion to mislead our youth," he said.

Moosa Ahmad, 40, a shopkeeper in Karachi, said he did not want such attacks on urban civilian targets to deter the army from pursuing the Taliban.

"These strikes should not make any difference, and the government must expedite its offensive," he said. "They should be chased wherever they are and wherever they go."

Tariq Khan, 26, a Peshawar teacher, lamented that the blast killed two United Nations workers - one from Serbia, the other from the Philippines - and wounded four others.

"They were helping us, and what we gave them was death, wounds, and fear," Khan said.

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a political and defense analyst, said overall sentiment is more nuanced. Nevertheless, he said it appears that the Taliban's support is waning.

"Among ordinary Pakistanis, the state of mind is changing only to the extent that they are more afraid. And now what do you do after being afraid?" Rizvi said.

"Some people will start saying stop the operations and others will argue that you should take firm action against them. While ordinary people might sometimes have contradictory thinking, overall I would say the balance is tilting against the Taliban."

In Washington, the Obama administration's special envoy to the region said yesterday that he was observing "the slow emergence of a consensus behind the government's actions."

"Everywhere there was a dramatic change in attitudes from my previous trips because of the outrages of the Taliban and their supporters, and this was widely recognized," Richard Holbrooke, who visited Pakistan last week, said at the State Department.

Holbrooke said attacks like Tuesday's hotel bombing "are not going to work, provided the government gives the security necessary. And this is a daunting task for Pakistan, which is under so much economic pressure. . . . But the government is addressing it."

Investigators searched yesterday through debris at the Pearl hotel, where about two dozen UN workers were staying when the bomb went off.

The exact death toll was not yet known.

While some media reports said up to 19 people were killed, a North West Frontier Province spokesman said officials had only been able to confirm 11 or 12 dead, including remains that are believed to be from the attackers.

Peshawar district coordination officer Sahibzada Anis also said nine people were killed in addition to the attackers.