ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As the Pakistani military pressed its campaign to root out Taliban militants from three districts northwest of the capital, a new poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis do not consider terrorism to be the most important issue facing the country, but rather the economy.
The poll, released Monday by Washington-based International Republican Institute, a nonprofit group that is affiliated with the Republican Party and promotes democracy abroad, also showed that 81 percent of respondents felt that the country was headed in the wrong direction.
Most blamed President Asif Ali Zardari — his approval rating was just 19 percent — but an overwhelming majority still said they preferred an unstable democracy to a military dictatorship.
The poll was taken in March before the Taliban flooded into neighboring districts from their stronghold in the Swat valley, and before the government opened its campaign to push the militants back. It clearly showed the challenges facing the government as it tries to mobilize Pakistanis behind its fight, particularly as the civilian toll of the campaign widens.
Pakistanis have long been reluctant to take on the Taliban, who are fellow Muslims and fellow Pakistanis. The poll, for instance, revealed strong support for the February peace with the Taliban in Swat. Eighty percent said they supported the pact and 74 percent felt the deal would bring peace to the region.
That deal has now fallen apart, with both the Taliban and the government blaming each other for its breakdown.
Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, claimed that 700 militants had been killed in the last four days of intense fighting — a far higher figure than the 140 or so reported by the military — along with 22 government troops. While it is clear that the fighting has been heavy, none of the casualty claims could be verified because aid agencies and journalists have been barred from the conflict areas.
In the last 12 days, more than 360,000 civilians have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as having been displaced by the fighting, the Geneva-based agency said.
The figure brought to over 900,000 the number of people registered as uprooted in successive waves of fighting in Pakistani since last August, William Spindler, a spokesman for the international refugee body, said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Malik, the interior minister, vowed that the military offensive would continue until the militants were crushed. “The operation will continue until the last Talib,” Mr. Malik said, using the singular form of the word Taliban.
Pakistan launched the offensive under strong American pressure to reverse advances towards the capital by the Taliban, after the militants entered the adjoining districts of Buner and Dir.
The survey pointed to a mixed picture for the government and the United States in bringing Pakistanis to their side in taking on extremism.
While most saw economic issues as the nation’s most pressing problems — just 10 percent said terrorism — 69 percent agreed that the Taliban and Al Qaeda operating in Pakistan was a serious problem.
Forty-five percent said they supported fighting the extremists in the tribal areas and the North West Frontier Province, an all time high.
The March survey also saw an increase in the willingness of Pakistanis to cooperate with the United States against extremism, with the number supporting such cooperation climbing to 37 percent from a low of 9 percent in January 2008.
Seventy-four percent agreed that religious extremism was a serious problem in Pakistan. But 56 percent said they would support Taliban demands to extend Islamic law, or shariah, to other parts of the country, including major cities like Lahore or Karachi.
“The most striking thing about the survey is that while 81 percent feel the country is headed in the wrong direction, 77 percent say they wanted to live in a democratic setup,” said Thomas E. Garrett, Regional Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa for the International Republican Institute, said in a telephone interview from Washington. “I think it is quite an amazing number.”
Mr. Garrett said that he was not surprised that economic issues took precedence over terrorism and that it was consistent with earlier IRI polls. “People are more concerned with bread and butter issues,” he said.
The survey was concluded by March 30, said Nicholas Palarino, the new country director of IRI in Pakistan. The randomly selected sample consisted of 3,500 adult men and women from 216 rural and 143 urban locations in 51 districts in all four provinces of Pakistan. The margin of error was 1.66 percent.
President Asif Ali Zardari’s low approval ratings were consistent with an earlier IRI poll. Asked which one leader could handle the problems facing Pakistan most effectively, an overwhelming 55 percent chose the two-time former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, while just 9 percent said Mr. Zardari.
On Monday, Mr. Sharif visited relief camps in Mardan District for those who have fled the fighting. He said that the people responsible for the displacement of local residents deserved “no leniency.”
“He is endorsing the military operation,” Arif Rafiq, a political analyst, said of Mr. Sharif. “It’s vague — it gives him wiggle room afterwards. It doesn’t expressly support the military operations, but it’s as strong a tacit approval as you can get.”
Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris.