Pakistani clerics to boycott peace conference

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ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistani clerics upset with anti-Taliban comments coming out of Afghanistan said Monday they will boycott a conference of religious leaders being held to denounce violence and press for a peaceful end to the 11-year-old Afghan war.

The head of the Pakistani clerics, Mufti Abu Huraira Mohiuddin sent a letter to his Afghan counterpart on Sunday announcing the move. In the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, Mohiuddin accused some Afghan clerics of using "unsavory language" against the Taliban and said the conference was shaping up to be a one-sided attack on the Taliban rather than a conference to press for peace.

The letter appeared to put an end to an initiative that began last November when Kabul and Islamabad announced the plan to hold a peace conference.

The ambitious initiative called for 500 clerics from Afghanistan and Pakistan to gather in Kabul in March to present a united front opposing violence, denouncing suicide bombings and urging all sides in the protracted conflict to pursue peace. At the time, the plan was touted as a sign of improving relations between Kabul and Islamabad. But the latest dispute highlights the difficulty of getting the squabbling neighbors to sit together.

Still, Pakistan is seen as key to any peace agreement with Taliban insurgents ahead of the 2014 withdrawal of NATO and U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and it's believed that Islamabad is the best hope of getting the Taliban to enter into serious negotiations.

The Taliban were given office space in Persian Gulf state of Qatar last year when the U.S. and Taliban opened secret talks. But those discussions stalled after the U.S. refused to release five Taliban from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Yet the Taliban have participated in at least two international conferences and U.S. and European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the fragility of the talks, say the Taliban are in touch with representatives of 30 to 40 countries. The proliferation of interlocutors has angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai who wants all peace negotiations channeled through his government even though the Taliban are steadfastly refusing to talk to his government.

Some members of the Afghan High Peace Council had hoped that 500 clerics from Afghanistan and Pakistan would have had the clout to propel the Taliban into direct talks with the government.

But the dispute among the clerics began last week in Islamabad when Pakistan's delegation suggested the Taliban should be represented at the Kabul conference. It initially appeared a compromise had been reached and a complete breakdown avoided in the final communique, which said "the conference will not be in support of or against anyone and/or any group, but it will be in the light of Islamic principles."

But by Sunday the Pakistani clerics had decided statements made by some of the Afghan delegates upon their return to Kabul were tantamount to taking sides against the Taliban.

Mohiuddin, in a letter addressed to the top Afghan cleric, said that the Pakistani delegation had to decline the invitation to take part "in the contentious meeting and subsequent peace conference in Kabul and shall have no role to play in it in the near future."

In Kabul, Maulvi Shahzada Shahid, a member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, said the letter had been received.

"We know that in the letter they say they will not participate, but I can't go into details for the time being," he told The AP by telephone.

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Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez in Kabul contributed to this report.

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Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan and can be followed at www.twitter.com/kathygannon

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