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Public Mood In Pakistan Turns Against Taliban

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Public Mood In Pakistan Turns Against Taliban

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Public Mood In Pakistan Turns Against Taliban

Public Mood In Pakistan Turns Against Taliban

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Pakistan's army is pressing deeper into Swat Valley to secure ground that Taliban extremists have held. The fighting in the northwest is unfolding just a few hours from the capital. The Taliban's infiltration so close to Islamabad appears to have persuaded many Pakistanis to support the military offensive.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's go next to Pakistan, where the government is fighting to throw the Taliban out of a mountainous region. Pakistan's American allies have worried for years about how serious Pakistan is about battling the Taliban. This time, though, the fighting is so close to the capital that many Pakistanis support the military offensive. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports from Islamabad.

JULIE MCCARTHY: The tide of Pakistan public opinion has turned. The Taliban and its merciless treatment of women forced to stay indoors and young men forced to fight in a jihad are now openly challenged and publicly reviled.

Mr. SAHEBZADA FAZAL KARIM (Islamic Cleric): (Singing in Foreign language)

MCCARTHY: At mosques, the country's moderate religious leaders - criticized for their timidity - now inveigh against extremism, like the cleric at this central Islamabad mosque that belongs to the Brelvi(ph) school of Islam. Its mix of Sufi mystics and tolerant Islam dominate the Punjab on the opposite side of the country from the Afghan border where sprawling madrassas incite jihad. Sahebzada Fazal Karim's sermon sounds anything but jihadist.

Mr. KARIM: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: There is no room at all for terrorism in Islam, the cleric tells worshippers. If someone spreads terrorism in the garb of religion, he has no relation to the Prophet Muhammad, he says, adding, the prophet's agenda is not to bar girls from universities or carry out suicide attacks. We will not let this conspiracy to malign Islam succeed, he says.

Following prayers, Raja Oscar(ph) says the military mission should finish off the Taliban with its foothold in the lawless Afghan-Pakistan border and in the adjacent Swat Valley, where the army offensive now rages.

Mr. RAJA OSCAR: Most of the people are supporting the operation in this area. Whatever is going on, it is not good for our country, that killing and targeting people and bomb blasting is not good for the people of Pakistan and not good for the borders, not good for anybody.

MCCARTHY: An opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute, a conservative U.S.-based think tank, found that 74 percent of Pakistanis believe religious extremism is a serious problem in the country. That the Taliban has no intention of ending its insurgency was clear last month when, fresh from a peace agreement in Swat, they spilled into neighboring Buner.

Politician and Pakistan Muslim League General Secretary Mushahid Hussain Sayed says the Taliban's relentless drive persuaded Pakistanis that a peace deal with militants was worthless.

Mr. MUSHAHID HUSSAIN SAYED (Politician, Pakistan Muslim League General Secretary): And then they saw those people in their true colors, I think the people of Pakistan have spoken, and they support the military action. They feel enough is enough, whether it's the flogging of the girl, whether it's the slaughtering of people. That's not what Pakistan is all about. That's an aberration.

MCCARTHY: As Pakistan's politicians and religious leaders find their voice against terrorism, artists rail on canvas. The fighting between army troops and militants in and around Swat Valley has chased 1.4 million people from their homes - Pakistan's largest displacement since separating from India 60 years ago.

In a gallery plastered with human-rights leaflets, water colorist Riffat Khatak stands before his paintings, titled "Swat Exodus," black birds scattering amid red bursts.

Mr. RIFFAT KHATAK (Artist): (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: When a bomb goes off, birds fly away before anything else, he says. Along with the birds, there are now our elderly, our women, and our children. Everything now has been tainted with blood, he says. It's as if an evil eye has been cast on this beautiful land.

The treatment of the noncombatants and staggering numbers of displaced will, in part, determine whether Pakistan's war against extremists will be deemed a success. Among the refugees from the conflict, the army's offensive appears to have only limited support. Exhausted after months living under the Taliban, many are now bitter at the army for not arranging their safe passage from the fighting that they say has also slaughtered civilians. Mohammed Yakub Kahn(ph) fled Swat for Islamabad.

Mr. MOHAMMED YAKUB KAHN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: The government bears more responsibility than the Taliban, Yakub says. The government can do anything. It can resolve the Taliban issue through negotiations or it has weaponry and an army. It can bring in peace, he says, or it can sabotage it.

Even Pakistanis who now support the military's aggressive new stance against extremism are also bracing for reprisals.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Islamabad.

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