ISLAMABAD Pakistan's moderate clerics, for years mute in the face of growing Islamist influence, are mobilizing support for the government as it battles the Taliban, warning that militants could take over the country.
Most of predominantly Islamic Pakistan's 160 million people are moderate Muslims, but for years they have been reluctant to speak out against the spread of the hardline Taliban.
Not any more.
"The military must eliminate the Taliban once and for all," Mufti Sarfraz Naeemi, a senior cleric of the moderate Barelvi branch of Sunni Muslims, told Reuters.
"Otherwise they will capture the entire country which would
be a big catastrophe."
The military launched a major offensive against Taliban militants in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, last week after the Taliban tried to capitalize on a February peace pact by pushing out of the valley to conquer new districts.
Pakistanis overwhelmingly supported the pact aimed at ending violence in Swat but were shocked to see the Taliban, emboldened by the deal, vowing to impose their rule across the country.
That raised alarm, not only in the United States which needs Pakistan to tackle the militants for success in Afghanistan, but also among ordinary Pakistanis, for the first time confronting the possibility the Taliban might appear in their towns.
Naeemi said the Barelvis had wanted to avoid confrontation with the Taliban so had not spoken out against aggression. But they could not stand by and let the Taliban impose their rule.
"They want people to fight one another, that's why we have kept silent and endured their oppression," Naeemi said.
"We don't want civil war ... But God forbid, if the government fails to stop them, then we will confront them ourselves."
"BATTLE FOR SURVIVAL"
Most Pakistanis are Barelvis, adherents of Islamic Sufi mysticism, who venerate saints and their shrines dotted across the country.
The austere Taliban, adherents of the Deobandi school of Islam, reject mystical Islam and recently blew up a famous shrine in the northwest, to many Pakistanis' shock.
For the first time in Pakistan, protesters have been taking to the streets to denounce the Taliban.
Barelvis have been holding anti-Taliban rallies across the country and are organizing a gathering of 5,000 clerics in Islamabad on Sunday to drum up support for the military in Swat.
"We support the army operation in Swat because it is a battle for the survival and defense of Pakistan," Sahibzada Fazal Karim, leader of Jamiat-e-ulema-e-Pakistan, a moderate Islamic party, and an organizer of the weekend conference, told Reuters.
"What these militants were doing was un-Islamic. Beheading innocent people and kidnapping are in no way condoned in Islam."
A political analyst said there was a degree of self-interest in the newfound outspokenness.
"Politicians are realizing there is no future for the country if the militants continue to expand their influence," said retired general and analyst Talat Masood.
"The moderate clergy is also feeling threatened because their role will be over. So everyone is trying to look at his own turf ... It's in their self-interest as well as the national interest."
Most Pakistanis, including political parties and the media, have backed the offensive in Swat, 130 km (80 miles) northwest of Islamabad, which comes after the United States accused the government of "abdicating" to the militants.
Deobandi strength grew in the 1980s thanks to an Islamization drive by then military ruler, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq.
At the time, Pakistan was channeling support from the United States and Saudi Arabia to Deobandi and other radical groups battling Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan.
(Editing by Robert Birsel and Jerry Norton)