By Nasir Malick
10-14-2

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Hardline Islamic parties which have emerged as
potential coalition partners after a general election in Pakistan said on
Monday they would seek to impose Islamic law in the country and ask U.S.
troops to leave.

Talks over who would form a coalition in parliament gathered pace,
with the focus of the outside world on whether the Islamic front, which
recorded stunning gains in last Thursday’s poll, would be part of the
government or in opposition.

The election, designed to return Pakistan to civilian rule after a
coup in 1999, has been strongly criticised by European Union observers who
said the military tipped the voting in its favour to allow President Pervez
Musharraf to hold on to power.

“We assure the international community that we are not terrorists,”
Qazi Hussain Ahmed, vice president of the Mutahidda-e-Amal (MMA) Islamic
coalition, told a news briefing in Islamabad where he set out his party’s
stall.

“We will not use this country for terrorism, nor allow anyone to use
this country for terrorism,” he said, before adding:

“But we do not approve of foreign interference. For this we do not
need any help from the American forces nor their bases in the country. There
should also be no such bases here which could be used for interference in
the affairs of neighbouring states.”

He was referring to the small U.S. military presence in Pakistan
concentrated at the Jacobabad air base, from where search and rescue
operations in Afghanistan are launched.

The MMA is also likely to oppose the small numbers of U.S.
intelligence agents helping Pakistani forces track down al Qaeda suspects in
tribal areas near the Afghan border.

MMA Chairman Shah Ahmed Noorani told reporters in Karachi that his
party supported the introduction of Islamic sharia law.

“Our first priority is to implement Islamic laws in the country and
we will not compromise in this issue. Now it is the responsibility of the
state to protect Islam and do away with secular norms.”

The MMA won 50 seats, eclipsing religious parties’ performance at
the 1997 election when they won just two. It makes them the third largest
party behind the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-e-Azam or PML(QA) with 77
seats and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which won 62.

“KING’S PARTY” LAYS LOW

In contrast to the vocal MMA, the PML(QA), has kept a low profile
since becoming the largest party in parliament at the election.

Dubbed the “king’s party” for its perceived support of Musharraf,
its leader Mian Mohammad Azhar suffered the humiliation of not winning a
seat, forcing him to hand over the reins to Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain.

Local media reported talks between PML(QA) and the PPP led by exiled
former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, which was the second largest party
ahead of the MMA.

But it is far from clear whether the two parties would be able to
resolve their differences, with PML(QA) seen as a loose union of candidates
designed to weaken the anti-Musharraf lobby and the PPP fiercely opposed to
continued military rule.

For his part, the leader of the PPP in Pakistan, Makhdoom Amin
Fahim, told Reuters late on Sunday he had not ruled out joining forces
either with the PML(QA) or the MMA.

The fact that the MMA is a grouping of such disparate religious
parties opposed to each other in the past raises questions about its ability
to remain united, analysts said.

And how much the composition of the coalition in Pakistan actually
matters remains to be seen.

By enhancing his powers through constitutional changes, which gave
him the right to dissolve parliament and cemented the role of the military
in government, Musharraf remains strong.

His decision to ban Bhutto and another exiled former premier, Nawaz
Sharif, from contesting the election infuriated opponents, as did his
decision to hold a controversial referendum in April that extended his rule
for five years.
Copyright © 2002 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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