Taped beating may turn tide in Pakistan

Footage of a woman being flogged undercuts public support for Taliban

The Associated PressJune 12, 2009 

— The footage was chilling -- a woman crying out in pain, held face-down on the ground, as a man with a long beard flogged her in front of a crowd.

It could be the video that changed Pakistan.

That two-minute clip, purportedly shot in the Swat valley where the Taliban held sway until a recent military offensive, has come to represent the militants and their extreme form of Islam. The footage is increasingly seen in Pakistan as a turning point, perhaps even more persuasive than all the bombings, beheadings and other violence, most recently Tuesday's suicide attack on a luxury hotel.

The circumstances of the beating are murky, no one is sure where exactly it happened, and the woman's identity remains unclear more than two months after the whipping was shown repeatedly on TV.

No matter. She remains irrevocably linked with the Taliban, an instant icon the government has used to ask Pakistanis if this is what they want for their country.

The answer from many seems to be no.

There are no scientific polls, but in informal interviews by The Associated Press with more than three dozen Pakistanis across the country Wednesday and Thursday, not a single person expressed sympathy or allegiance toward the Taliban. The most common answer was the militants should be hunted down and killed.

Many people told the AP they used to support the Taliban but no longer do so. The finding is supported by those of Pakistani analysts and commentators, who say they detect a similar shift in public opinion recently against the Taliban.

The change in public mood is empowering the army in its offensive against the militants -- a campaign supported by the Obama administration, which believes security in Pakistan is vital to defeating the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

Now the army says it has the Taliban on the run, helped by tips from residents in villages under fire. It's quite a change from several months ago, when the Taliban was on the march within 60 miles of the capital, Islamabad, and there was talk of the entire country falling to the militants.

"Like all of us, I was welcoming the Taliban in the beginning," said Abdul Jabbar Khan, a 52-year-old shopkeeper. Khan now lives with eight family members in a relief camp in Mardan, along the northwest border with Afghanistan. They said they were forced from their home by fighting in Mingora, Swat's biggest town.

"When Maulana Fazlullah started giving sermons on the radio, he was talking about good things -- heaven and Islamic teachings," Khan said, referring to the Taliban leader in Swat.

"Now we have the result," he continued. "It is very miserable, painful for all of us. We had a good life there. We had a good home and everything. Now we are begging for even daily meals. These people are responsible. They betrayed us and played with our religious emotions."

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