MIANWALI, Pakistan — Led by cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, a large caravan of demonstrators, including more than 30 U.S. anti-war activists, embarked on a two-day journey Saturday to Pakistan’s volatile tribal areas to rally against the CIA’s drone missile campaign, a protest that triggered warnings of possible militant attacks on demonstrators.
The caravan had more than 100 vans and cars when it left Islamabad, the capital, Saturday morning, and steadily grew in size as it made its way across western Punjab province toward South Waziristan, where demonstrators were scheduled to stage a rally in the village of Kotkai on Sunday.
The Pakistani army has control over large sections of South Waziristan after carrying out a major offensive against militant strongholds there in 2009. However, pockets of Pakistani Taliban militants continue to exist in parts of South Waziristan, and it remains a region extremely dangerous for Pakistanis to venture into and off-limits to foreigners.
South Waziristan is much less targeted by U.S. drone missile strikes than North Waziristan, home to the deadly Afghan Taliban wing known as the Haqqani network, as well as pockets of Al Qaeda militants and other extremist fighters. However, Khan backed off of his initial plans to carry out the anti-drone rally in North Waziristan because of the widespread presence of militants, and instead moved the proposed venue to South Waziristan, where local tribesmen gave their assurances that rally participants would be safe.
The Pakistani government, however, disagreed that a large rally, particularly one including American citizens, could be safely held in South Waziristan, and notified Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, that the caravan would not be allowed to enter the tribal region on Sunday. Khan said last week that he would forge ahead with the rally, but if confronted by police at the Waziristan border and told to turn back, he would not resist and instead hold the event outside of Waziristan.
Factions of the Pakistani Taliban, the country’s homegrown insurgency, have warned that rally participants could be targeted with suicide bombings and other attacks if they proceed to South Waziristan.
Speaking in Mianwali, a small city 120 miles southwest of Islamabad, Khan told thousands of caravan participants that his “Peace March” will “create a new Pakistan. We are going to tell the people of Waziristan that we did not forget them. We stand with the people of Waziristan as they endure these brutalities by America.”
The rally will focus on the U.S. drone missile program that targets Islamic militants in Pakistan’s tribal region along the Afghan border, a campaign hailed by Washington as an effective tool in combating militancy but reviled in Pakistan because it breaches the country’s sovereignty and has resulted in scores of civilian deaths.
“It’s our responsibility as good Americans to come here to Pakistan and show the face of the American people that have a conscience,” Medea Benjamin, a cofounder of Code Pink, a U.S. anti-drone activist group, said last week. “To show the face of the American people that believe that the lives of Pakistanis are as valuable as the lives of any American.”
However, many Pakistani observers see the rally as Khan’s thinly veiled attempt to generate a raft of publicity for his campaign to unseat the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in national elections next year. In an editorial last week, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn wrote that the PTI’s anti-drone, anti-war on terror policy was already well-known, and that a “made-for-TV” rally would be “at best peripheral to its electoral success.
“The downsides, however, are very real and potentially serious, for the country if not for PTI,” the editorial continued. “South Waziristan is an area no one, not even the most optimistic military official, would claim is anywhere near an acceptable normal.”
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-- Alex Rodriguez and Nasir Khan. Staff writer Alex Rodriguez reported from Islamabad and special correspondent Nasir Khan reported from Mianwali, Pakistan.