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Pakistan army pushed political role for militant-linked groups

Pakistan army pushed political role for militant-linked groups
From Reuters - September 15, 2017

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) - A new Pakistani political party controlled by an Islamist with a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head is backing a candidate in a by-election on Sunday, in what a former senior army officer says is a key step in a military-proposed plan to mainstream militant groups.

The Milli Muslim League party loyal to Hafiz Saeed - who the United States and India accuse of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people - has little chance of seeing its favored candidate win the seat vacated when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was removed from office by the Supreme Court in July.

But the foray into politics by Saeeds Islamist charity 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.

Pakistans powerful military has long been accused of fostering militant groups as proxy fighters opposing neighboring arch-enemy India, a charge the army denies.

PATRIOTIC PEOPLE

Saeeds religious charity 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 Saeeds lieutenants, JUD workers and Milli Muslim League officials are running his campaign and portraits of Saeed adorn every poster promoting Sheikh.

Another Islamist designated a terrorist by the United States, 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.

Saeeds charity and Khalils Ansar ul-Umma organization are both seen by the United States as fronts for militant groups the army has been accused of sponsoring. The military denies any policy of encouraging radical groups.

Both Islamist groups deny their political ambitions were engineered by the military. The official army spokesman was not available for comment after queries were sent to the press wing.

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 Indias friend is a traitor, a traitor, went another campaign slogan, a reference to Sharifs attempts to improve relations with long-time foe India that was a source of tension with the military.

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 Ladens 1998 fatwa declaring war on the United States.

RELIGION AND POLITICS

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