ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — The Pakistani government has agreed to a deal that could impose Islamic law in parts of the country in an attempt to placate Islamic militants, while Pres. Asif Zardari warned in an interview to be aired Sunday that the Islamists are "trying to take over the state."
Pakistani officials said that Islamic law, or sharia, would be imposed in a vast region of northwestern Pakistan called Malakand under a deal hammered out with the militants over the weekend.
The Pakistani move is likely to add to the strains between the U.S. and Pakistan, which a nearly completed U.S. military study is expected to say is a more urgent foreign policy challenge for President Barack Obama than Iraq or Iran are.
A parade of high-level U.S. officials has visited Pakistan to press for more aggressive military efforts against Islamic militants and to criticize attempts to negotiate peace deals with extremists.
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In an interview with CBS to air Sunday, Zardari admitted that the country is in grave danger from the Taliban, whom he said are present in "huge parts" of Pakistan.
"We are aware of the fact (the Taliban are) trying to take over the state of Pakistan. So, we're fighting for the survival of Pakistan," Zardari said.
Many Pakistani Army and intelligence officers, however, oppose using force against fellow Muslims, and some have ties to militant groups.
"This (new agreement) is definitely a surrender," said Khadim Hussain of the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a policy institute in Islamabad, the capital. "If you keep treating a community as something different from the rest of the country, it will isolate them."
Javed Iqbal, a retired judge, speaking on Pakistani television, said: "It means that there is not one law in the country. It will disintegrate this way. If you concede to this, you will go on conceding."
Reacting to the government's announcement, the Pakistani Taliban militants who control Malakand's Swat valley, a former honeymoon mecca 100 miles northwest of Islamabad, announced a 10-day cease-fire Sunday. On Saturday, they freed a Chinese hostage who'd been held for more than five months, although other Western hostages remain missing.
A yearlong Army operation with some 12,000 troops has failed to break the militants' grip on Swat. The Islamic extremists have banned schooling for girls; destroyed some 200 government schools, mainly for girls, but also a number for boys; established their own courts; and executed people for leading "un-Islamic" lives.
Malakand, the scene of a young British officer named Winston Churchill's first book in 1898, is part of the North West Frontier province, a regular part of Pakistan, not the remote, Federally-Administered Tribal Area that runs along the Afghan border and is largely overrun by Taliban and al Qaida.
The deal, set to be announced Monday, followed talks between the government and a local Islamic leader, Sufi Muhammad, who once led hundreds of men to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, against the U.S.-led coalition that invaded the country after 9/11. Pakistani authorities freed him following the restoration of democracy last year.
Hajji Adeel, a senior member of the Awami National Party, which runs the North West Frontier Province government that conducted the negotiations, said that the main aim was to speed up the justice system.
"If six months ago, this (sharia) had started working in Swat, the intensity of the terror there would have been much less," said Adeel.
Under the new regulations, criminal cases would be disposed of within four months and civil cases within six months, Adeel said. Cases often drag on for years, sometimes decades, in Pakistan's creaky colonial-era legal system, a grievance militants use to garner support.
The NWFP provincial law minister, Arshad Abdullah, said the government had agreed to sign a deal, but said the terms require the militants to stop challenging the writ of the state in Malakand.
"Conditions are worsening, day by day," Abdullah said. "It's not that we are giving in to their demands, rather we are demanding of them to restore peace first."
The new law is a relatively mild form of sharia. Religious experts, known as a qazi, will sit in court alongside a regular judge to ensure that rulings comply with the dictates of Islam.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.
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