U.S. Cautiously Supports Peace Talks Between Pakistani Government, Militants

A drive by Pakistan's new government to talk peace with Islamic militants on Wednesday gained the Bush administration's cautious support.

A top State Department official said a judgment depends on whether the groups keep their pledge against using force.

"You have to talk to people," said Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher. "The Pakistani government is engaged in discussion designed to stop violence. It's got to be done in a way that produces results, that reduces violence."

Boucher, who overseas U.S. policy on Pakistan and 11 other countries, told reporters "it's the outcome that matters."

Under the new strategy, Pakistan freed a pro-Taliban cleric and signed an accord with his hard-line group Monday, the first major step by the new government to talk peace with Islamic militants and break with President Pervez Musharraf's policy of using force.

The government of North West Frontier Province said Muhammad's group signed a pact renouncing violence in return for being allowed to peacefully campaign for Islamic law. Security forces have the right to "act against" any extremists who attacked the government.

Boucher said there had been such efforts in the past, but they were unsuccessful because they were not enforced. Some analysts suspect truces struck by Musharraf with some groups gave Pakistani militants as well as Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters a chance to build up their strength.

Speaking of the effort by the new government, the State Department official said "we're pretty much aware of their ideas," but he was not certain the United States knew in advance of the agreement reached Monday with the cleric. "We're supportive," he added.

The White House took a cautious stance. Press Secretary Dana Perino said, "We have been concerned about these types of approaches, because we don't think they work."

"What we encourage them to do," Perino said, "is to continue to fight against the terrorists and to not disrupt any security or military operations that are ongoing in order to help prevent a safe haven for terrorists there."

In Pakistan, Muslim Khan, a spokesman for Muhammad's son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, whose supporters battled security forces for control of the Swat Valley last year, said the fighters allied with the wanted militant would not cease their battle.

"We welcome the release of Sufi Muhammad, but we will only lay down arms when the government would enforce Shariah," or Islamic law, Khan said.

Talat Masood, a retired general and security analyst, said the deal with Muhammad demonstrated the new government's willingness to try dialogue with militants and could increase pressure on Fazlullah and others to lay down their arms.

"But it's a long way before you can make any judgment as to whether this is a success," he said, citing the previous failed peace efforts with pro-Taliban militants.

Pakistan's national government, led by the party of assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, wants to use dialogue and development to curb militancy in the tribal region. The North West Frontier provincial government, which is led by a Pashtun nationalist party, has joined the effort.