ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Thousands of followers of leading Islamist clerics began marching Sunday from the eastern city of Lahore to the capital, Islamabad, to protest Pakistan’s decision to once again let NATO move Afghanistan-bound supply convoys through the country after a seven-month hiatus.
The caravan of protesters was organized by the Defense of Pakistan Council, a coalition of hard-line religious groups that has among its leaders Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, an Islamic cleric who India claims engineered the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people. The procession -- made up of buses, cars and motorcycles -- was peaceful and heading toward the capital without incident as of Sunday afternoon.
Pakistani leaders have been bracing for a popular backlash since announcing last week that the nation was lifting the shutdown of NATO supply routes through the country, a blockade imposed after the American air strikes that mistakenly killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers along the Afghan border in November. The first NATO container trucks crossed over from Pakistan to Afghanistan on Thursday.
Until Sunday, protests throughout the country against the resumption of NATO supply convoys have been relatively small and sporadic. Defense of Pakistan Council leaders say they will continue their demonstration outside Parliament once they reach Islamabad but will ensure their protests do not become violent.
Though the Defense of Pakistan Council’s popularity is largely confined to conservative followers, Pakistani officials are nevertheless watching the group’s actions closely, mainly because anti-American sentiment runs high throughout the country. Some experts believe Pakistani civilian leaders delayed reopening the NATO supply routes for so long out of concern that the move would trigger anger in the streets -- a particularly troubling prospect for President Asif Ali Zardari’s government as it gears up for upcoming national elections.
Along with Saeed, the Defense of Pakistan Council’s leadership includes Maulana Samiul-Haq, regarded by many as the father of the Taliban movement, and Hamid Gul, a former chief of Pakistan’s premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who has long been viewed as a key supporter of insurgents battling U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Saeed, who was seen alongside other Islamist clerics atop a vehicle leading the caravan Sunday, maintains a high profile despite the $10-million bounty that the U.S. government placed on him in April. Saeed is suspected of having ties with Al Qaeda and, with the help of the ISI, founded the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba in the 1980s. He now heads Lashkar-e-Taiba’s social welfare wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, long regarded by the U.S. and India as a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba’s militant activities.
Pakistani officials refuse to arrest Saeed, saying the U.S. must provide evidence that ties him to militant activities before they can take him into custody.
-- Alex Rodriguez
Photo: Protesters in Lahore begin their "long march" to Islamabad to oppose the reopening of NATO supply routes to Afghanistan. Credit: Arif Ali / AFP / Getty Images