Army-pushed political role for militant-linked groups

LAHORE: A new Pakistani political party controlled by a hardliner with a $10 million US 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 favoured 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 Saeed’s charity is following a blueprint that Sharif himself rejected when the military proposed it last year, retired Lieutenant General Amjad Shuaib said.
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 militancy.
“We have to separate those elements who are peaceful from the elements who are picking up weapons,” Shuaib said.
Pakistan’s powerful military has long been accused of fostering militant groups as proxy fighters opposing neighbouring arch-enemy India, a charge the army denies.
Saeed’s 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 Saeed’s lieutenants, JUD workers and Milli Muslim League officials are running his campaign and portraits of Saeed adorn every poster promoting Sheikh.
Another hardliner designated a terrorist by the United States, Fazlur Rehman Khalil, has said he too plans to soon form his own party to advocate strict religious law. — Reuters