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Violence Precedes Pakistan Election

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Violence Precedes Pakistan Election

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Violence Precedes Pakistan Election

Violence Precedes Pakistan Election

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Taliban militants continue to grow in strength and influence in Pakistan, particularly in the country's northwest region. In the lead-up to parliamentary voting next week there have bombs and suicide attacks.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Pakistan chooses a new parliament and provincial assemblies on Monday. The election's taking place in an extremely tense atmosphere with bombs, suicide blasts, especially in the northwest region. Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party is expected to receive a huge sympathy vote in the aftermath of her assassination.

And as NPR's Philip Reeves reports the signs of a backlash against the Islamic religious parties.

(Soundbite of applause)

PHILIP REEVES: Pakistan's voters haven't got much to laugh about. But this man is telling jokes, and they're going down well.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

REEVES: Weather-beaten men with gravestone teeth and shaggy beards cry out for me. Their eyes shine with delight for the comic's jeering at the people known here simply as the mullahs. The mullahs are the Islamic clerics from an alliance of religious parties that's ruled this part of Pakistan for five years.

The mullahs are only interested in filling their stomachs and lining their pockets, the comic says.

We're in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. Much of the recent violence in Pakistan has been in this region. Most of the population are Pashtuns. That's the same ethnic group as the Taliban operating in neighboring Afghanistan and in the nearby mountains of Pakistan's tribal border area.

(Soundbite of applause)

REEVES: The comic's the star act at a rally given by the Awami National Party. The ANP hates the Taliban. It thinks the world's stereotyping all Pashtuns as violent religious fanatics.

Mr. AHMED KHAN(ph) (Running for Political Seat): (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Ahmed Khan is running for a seat. He blames President Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf tells the Americans are Pashtuns are Taliban, says Khan.

(Soundbite of person speaking over loudspeaker)

REEVES: It's market day at a village outside the city of Mardan. You can buy anything here from a rabbit to a magic cure for impotency.

(Soundbite of cow mooing)

REEVES: Fizal Oratica Taylor(ph) is helping a friend buy a cow. He's keen to explain why he's not buying the politics of the religious parties anymore.

Mr. FIZAL ORATICA TAYLOR (Market Goer): (Through translator) They fight war in the name of Islam and they talked about implementation of sharia, the Islamic law here. But they drifted away from the Islamic agenda.

REEVES: Another man, a butcher called Mohammed Arshat(ph), says the mullahs did nothing while in office.

Mr. MOHAMMED ARSHAT (Butcher): (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of crowd)

REEVES: You don't have to go far to find evidence of the provincial government's unpopularity. A few miles away a crowd of men brandishing wooden clubs blocks the road. They are furious about power outages, up to eight hours every day they say.

The secular ANP, which advocates more autonomy for Pashtuns, is expected to benefit from public anger over what they call here the Talibanization of the province. There's particular resentment over the Taliban's attempt to take over a once-thriving tourist area nearby. And also, says party worker, Akbar Hassan(ph), over suicide bombings.

Mr. AKBAR HASSAN (Party Worker): This agenda is of somebody else, not the Pashtuns' agenda. We need pens and books, we need uniforms, we need schools. We don't need suicide jackets to blow people and blow themselves. This is against life.

REEVES: Ahmad Khan, the candidate, heads out in search of votes. He smiles and waves at passersby. But this is no shredding work. Several ANP officials have been killed during this election campaign.

Mr. KHAN: What do you think, I'm (unintelligible)? I'm nothing. We are worried but we can't leave our job. We have to do this.

REEVES: Khan believes his party's on the verge of victory, although there's also competition from Benazir Bhutto's party. A big vote for the ANP should not be confused though with support from the Taliban's and al-Qaeda's enemies, the United States and NATO. It's hard to find a Pashtun here who thinks military force is an effective way of quashing Islamist militancy.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Lahore.

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