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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 May, 2003, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Pakistan's unruly province
By Jill McGivering
BBC Asia analyst

The debate about the possible introduction of Sharia law in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province has raised concerns about the role and political direction of the region.

The dominance of hardline Islamic parties there and the support they've previously expressed for the Taleban has added to fears that the province is a new breeding ground for Taleban-style ideology.

Jamaat-e-Islami members demonstrate in Pakistan
Islamic hardliners have a strong presence in NWFP
North-West Frontier Province is a frontier in every sense.

As well as sitting geographically between Afghanistan and the rest of Pakistan, it has close ideological ties to the Taleban.

During the coalition attacks on Afghanistan, political hardliners there staged passionate anti-American protests - and spoke out in support of the Taleban and Osama Bin Laden.

It's more strictly Islamic and conservative than other parts of Pakistan.

The dusty streets of Peshawar are dominated by local men. When women do appear, many wear burkhas.

Islamabad struggles to impose its will in the area.

Militant stronghold

The out-lying tribal areas, administered separately, are described as a no man's land.

A frightening echo of the beginnings of Taleban rule in Kabul

Central law enforcers have little jurisdiction.

That's fuelled speculation that the region's now the hiding place of remnants of the Taleban, even Osama Bin Laden himself.

Against this background, the rise of Islamic hardliners has seemed all the more worrying.

Some see their emergence as a backlash, a reaction to President Musharraf's attempts to cosy up to the West.

Others see it as possibly more sinister, as public evidence of the growing influence of former Taleban figures now establishing themselves in the region and gathering supporters to them.

Vice squad fears

There have already been warning signs.

In January, musicians said they were being harassed by local security forces, staging a crackdown on music and film-making.

The police denied it. But to many, it was a frightening echo of the beginnings of Taleban rule in Kabul.

Now the prospect of a Department of Vice and Virtue is creating similar nervousness, reminiscent of Taleban vice squads and draconian powers.

President Musharraf, too, may be watching events with some discomfort.

He's keen to convince the West that Pakistan is an ally in the war on terrorism, not part of the problem.

Allegations of creeping "Talebanisation" within his own borders are the last thing he needs.

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