Hardline region tries to impose sharia law

Politicians from Pakistan's most radical Islamic parties, emboldened by an unprecedented election success, are preparing to impose sharia law on the country's already conservative northern province.

In general elections in October - the first since a military coup three years earlier - an alliance of religious parties riding a wave of anti-American sentiment swept to a majority in the parliament of the North West Frontier, next to the Afghan border.

In the national assembly in Islamabad, the religious parties, which had traditionally won barely a handful of seats, became the third - largest party and a significant opposition force.

Since the Muttahidda Majlis-e-Amal (United Action Front) took over in the frontier, some provincial banks have been told to stop charging interest on loans, and music has been banned on buses.

Now the provincial government is planning a ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, an unwelcome reminder of Afghanistan's religious police force under the Taliban.

But these politicians are markedly different from the poorly educated religious students of the Taliban, whom they appear to be emulating.

Several, like Siraj-ul Haq, the provincial cabinet's deputy leader, are highly educated and careful to appear conciliatory.

"Sharia means the supremacy of law, the provision of justice, the provision of healthcare facilities," Mr Haq said, speaking at his sparsely decorated official residence in Peshawar. "It means education, providing food and shelter, and satisfying people spiritually. We can claim to have in the frontier province the most ultra-modern and democratic government in the world."

However it also offers an ideological support base for Taliban and al-Qaida remnants.

Of the FBI presence in the region, Mr Haq said: "Pakistan considers operations conducted in the name of the hunt for al-Qaida as false operations.

"We hope that no one will displease us, otherwise it will be very harmful for everyone. It could become more serious."

Many of those elected belong to the powerful Jamaat-e-Islami party, which has close links with the Hizb-ul Mojahedin, the largest militant group fighting in Kashmir.

In a series of interviews, several new politicians admitted they had fought with Hizb-ul Mojahedin in Kashmir, and before that against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

The national assembly politician Mohammad Usman was one of them. "Jihad means to struggle for the glory of Islam," he said. "It was difficult, we were guerrillas, but that comes in the spirit of jihad. Now, that life for me is finished. Now we must serve the people."

The religious parties can count on their powerful relationship with the military, which still dominates Pakistan's government. The Jamaat-e-Islami also has thousands of followers in Pakistani society.

But to succeed, the religious parties will also need to tackle the frontier's pressing need for services such as education, water supplies, and healthcare.