Conservative Islamic leaders in Pakistan call for strike

Monday, December 23, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Conservative Islamic leaders in Pakistan's northwest called for a nationwide strike to protest a possible U.S. war on Iraq, a newspaper reported Sunday, a sign of deepening anti-American sentiment in a region crucial to fighting terrorism.

Fazl-ur Rahman urged followers to strike Jan. 3 and repeated his vow to press for the removal of U.S. forces from regions that border Afghanistan, where soldiers are working with Pakistan to catch al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives.

At a meeting in the remote town of Dera Ismail Khan, Rahman said a war in Iraq would be "part of the American agenda to spread terrorism," the Urdu-language newspaper Nawa-e-Waqt reported Sunday.

But Pakistan's prime minister urged his countrymen to think twice before sympathizing with Iraq.

"Give a glance back in history, and see whether Iraq helped Pakistan during its times of crisis," Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali said Sunday, according to news reports.

Rahman, a one-time candidate for prime minister, is a leading member of the religious coalition that governs North West Frontier Province and is part of the government in the southeastern province of Baluchistan -- two strategic areas bordering Afghanistan.

His resentment of U.S. soldiers highlights the difficulties facing the United States in tracking down Taliban and al Qaida believed to be holding out in the border regions.

On Saturday, U.S. army paratrooper Sgt. Steven Checo, 22, was shot and killed while on patrol near the border. His assailants escaped to Pakistan.

Most Pakistani tribesmen in the border regions are devout Muslims loathe to hand over a fellow Muslim to the United States, identified here as a Christian country.

Any attempt by the U.S. military to pursue suspects into Pakistan would likely provoke an angry and possibly violent backlash from religious hard-liners.

The Pakistani army is deployed in the border regions, as are a small number of U.S. special forces, whose presence there is low-key and usually denied by officials here.

People in the Pakistani border city of Miram Shah and in Wana, deep in tribal territory, have reported seeing U.S. special forces conduct raids with the Pakistan military on suspected al-Qaida or Taliban hide-outs.

Pakistan has been a crucial ally of the global coalition against terrorism, abandoning its support for the Taliban following Sept. 11.

"Before the American attacks on Afghanistan, President Pervez Musharraf said that he has saved Pakistan by supporting the United States, but we say he has destroyed Pakistan," said Riaz Durrani, a spokesman for Rahman.

The involvement of FBI agents in the arrest and detention of Pakistani terror suspects has also enraged Rahman and his religious colleagues, Durrani told The Associated Press in an interview Sunday.

"Musharraf is an inspector in the employ of the American police, and the FBI raids in Pakistan are proof of that," Durrani said.

Rahman claimed that the Bush administration may turn on Pakistan, which has been embroiled in controversy centering on allegations it had given its nuclear know-how to North Korea, and may have tried to sell it to Iraq. Pakistan denies those accusations.

"If Americans today succeeded in attacking Iraq, then tomorrow they may attack Iran, and then Pakistan," Durrani said.

Islamabad's pro-U.S. posture has spawned a growing anti-American lobby, targeting foreigners. Suicide squads have surfaced for the first time in Pakistan.

Western and Pakistani intelligence sources say the suicide bombings are inspired by al-Qaida fugitives doing the recruiting and training, and working with outlawed Pakistani extremist groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Harakat-ul Mujahedeen.

These organizations function freely under different names, despite the ban. Since the strong showing of the religious right in elections in October, their leaders and many of their followers have been freed from jail.

Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, a fierce anti-Indian group waging war in Indian-ruled Kashmir, changed its name to Jamiat Al-Dawa. Hafiz Saeed, the chief of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, was recently freed.

Meanwhile, in southern Karachi, police have made several arrests in recent days and uncovered suicide bomb plots targeting American diplomats, Pakistan's security force and Western interests.

Authorities here worry that a U.S.-led war on Iraq would further inflame anti-U.S. sentiments. Most Western embassies are already operating at emergency levels, with families evacuated several months ago.

Outside the U.S. Embassy in the capital, Islamabad, additional barricades and cement walls are being erected. Soldiers in sandbag bunkers guard the diplomatic enclave, a neighborhood where foreign missions are located and vehicles are routinely stopped and checked.

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