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Pakistani Army Pushing Political Role for Terror Groups Like Hafiz Saeed's JuD

The Milli Muslim League party loyal to Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million US bounty on his head, has little chance of seeing its favoured candidate win the seat vacated when Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was removed from office by the Supreme Court in July.

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Updated:September 16, 2017, 11:18 AM IST
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Pakistani Army Pushing Political Role for Terror Groups Like Hafiz Saeed's JuD
File photo of Hafeez Saeed. (Photo: Reuters)
New Delhi: A new political party controlled by 26/11 attacks mastermind and Jamaat-ud-Dawah chief Hafiz Saeed is backing a candidate in a by-election in Pakistan on Sunday. A Reuters report has quoted a former senior Pakistani army officer as saying that the move is a key step in a military-proposed plan to mainstream militant groups.

The Milli Muslim League party loyal to Hafiz Saeed, who has a $10 million US bounty on his head, has little chance of seeing its favoured candidate win the seat vacated when Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was removed from office by the Supreme Court in July.

But the foray into politics by Saeed's Jamaat-ud-Dawah is following a blueprint that Sharif himself rejected when the military proposed it last year, retired Lieutenant General Amjad Shuaib told Reuters.

Three close Sharif confidants with knowledge of the discussions confirmed that Sharif had opposed the "mainstreaming" plan, which senior military figures and some analysts see as a way of steering ultra-religious groups away from violent jihad.

"We have to separate those elements who are peaceful from the elements who are picking up weapons," Shuaib said.

India has for long maintained that Pakistan's powerful military has been fostering militant groups as proxy fighters.

"PATRIOTIC PEOPLE"

Saeed's JuD launched the Milli Muslim League party within two weeks after the court ousted Sharif over corruption allegations.

Yaqoob Sheikh, the Lahore candidate for Milli Muslim League, is standing as an independent after the Electoral Commission said the party was not yet legally registered.

But Saeed's lieutenants, JuD workers and Milli Muslim League officials are running his campaign and portraits of Saeed adorn every poster promoting Sheikh.

Another US designated terrorist, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, has told Reuters he too plans to soon form his own party to advocate strict Islamic law.

"God willing, we will come into the mainstream — our country right now needs patriotic people," Khalil said, vowing to turn Pakistan into a state government by strict Islamic law.

Saeed's JuD and Khalil's Ansar ul-Umma are both believed to be fronts for militant groups the army has been accused of sponsoring. Officially, the military denies any policy of encouraging radical groups.

As expected, both groups deny their political ambitions were engineered by the military. Pakistan army’s official spokesman was not available for comment after queries were sent to the press wing, Reuters reported.

Still, hundreds of MML supporters, waving posters of Saeed and demanding his release from house arrest, chanted "Long live Hafiz Saeed! Long live the Pakistan army!" at political rallies during the past week.

"Anyone who is India's friend is a traitor, a traitor," went another campaign slogan, a reference to Sharif's apparent attempts to improve relations with India.

'DERADICALISATION' PLAN

Both Saeed and Khalil are proponents of a strict interpretation of Islam and have a history of supporting violence — each man was reportedly a signatory to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa declaring war on the United States.

Analyst Khaled Ahmed, who has researched Saeed's Jamaat-ud-Dawa and its connections to the military, says the new political party is clearly an attempt by the generals to pursue an alternative to dismantling its militant proxies.

"One thing is the army wants these guys to survive," Ahmed said. "The other thing is that they want to also balance the politicians who are more and more inclined to normalise relations with India."

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency first began pushing the political mainstreaming plan in April 2016, according to retired general Shuaib, a former director of the Pakistani army's military intelligence wing that is separate from the ISI.

He said the proposal was shared with him in writing by the then-ISI chief, adding that he himself had spoken with Khalil as well as Saeed in an unofficial capacity about the plan.

"Fazlur Rehman Khalil was very positive. Hafiz Saeed was very positive," Shuaib said. "My conversation with them was just to confirm those things which I had been told by the ISI and other people."

Saeed has been under an apparent house arrest since January at his house in the eastern city of Lahore, but videos of his hate speeches against India keep surfacing.

CNN-News18 this week accessed one such video where Saeed is seen calling for jihad in Myanmar over the Rohingya Muslims issues.

The United States has offered a $10 million reward for information leading to his conviction over the Mumbai attacks.

Nawaz Sharif, however, was strongly against the military's mainstreaming plan, Reuters quoted Shuaib as saying.

According to the Reuters report, Sharif wanted to completely dismantle groups like the JuD. Disagreement on what to do about anti-India proxy fighters was a major source of rancour with the military, the report cited one of the close Sharif confidants as saying.

In recent weeks, several senior figures from the ruling PML-N party have publicly implied that elements of the military — which has run Pakistan for almost half its modern history and previously ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup — had a hand in the court ouster of Sharif, a charge both the army and the court reject.

A representative of the PML-N, which last month replaced him as prime minister with close ally Shahid Khaqi Abbasi, said the party was "not aware" of any mainstreaming plan being brought to the table.

RELIGION AND POLITICS

Some analysts worry that mainstreaming such controversial groups would be a risky strategy for Pakistan.

US President Donald Trump's administration has threatened sanctions against members of Pakistan's military and even raised the spectre of declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.

"It will send a wrong message," said analyst Zahid Hussain, who nevertheless thought that Saeed's new party would have a "negligible" effect on Pakistani elections because religious parties have never won more than a few seats in parliament.

Others are not so sure.

Sheikh, the MML candidate in Sunday's by-election who says he was handpicked by Hafiz Saeed, vowed to establish strict Islamic rule and "break" liberalism and secularism.

Analyst Ahmed warned that few existing religious parties have a “charismatic leader like Saeed”, and Pakistan may find itself unable to control a rising tide of Islamist sentiment.

"If Hafiz Saeed comes into the mainstream, it's not that he is going to be politicised," he added. "It's that he is going to make politics more religious."

(With Inputs from Reuters)
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