Gathering demands holy war against US
Islamabad - Pakistanis poured onto Islamabad's streets on Monday, chanting "death to America" and demanding holy war at a rally whipped up by right-wing, religious and banned organisations linked to al-Qaeda.
It was the latest show of support for Defence of Pakistan, a coalition of around 40 parties chaired by a cleric dubbed the father of the Taliban that include organisations blacklisted at home and abroad as terror groups.
Allah Buksh, a senior police official, said 2 500 attended the demonstration as it got underway, but witnesses estimated the crowd at 3 500 as hundreds of riot police, armed with batons and wearing bullet-proof jackets stood guard.
"Today, we have gathered here to raise a voice of protest against US intervention in Pakistan," chairperson Maulana Sami ul-Haq, who runs an extremist madrassa that educated several Taliban leaders, said.
Also present was member Hamid Gul, who headed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency during the 1980s US and Pakistani-sponsored war against Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
His membership has helped fuel suspicions that Pakistan's security establishment is backing the coalition as a means of exerting pressure on the weak government and whipping up rhetoric against the unpopular US alliance.
"Our protest is against the possible resumption of Nato supplies, US and Indian occupation and to strengthen the country's defence," Haq said.
"America wants to break Pakistan into pieces," he added in reference to a resolution sponsored by three US lawmakers calling for self-determination in Pakistan's insurgency-torn southwestern province of Baluchistan.
The alliance, which uses Twitter and Facebook to promote its message, was set up after US air strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border in late November, which saw Pakistan shut its Afghan border to Nato supplies.
"Death to America" and "America deserves one treatment: Jihad, jihad" shouted the crowd in a bustling commercial area, an AFP reporter said.
The coalition has already attracted large turnouts at a series of rallies across the country that some see as a build up to contesting Pakistan's next general election, which could be called within months.
The government's 10-year alliance in the US-led "war on terror" and in neighbouring Afghanistan is deeply unpopular in Pakistan, where it is blamed for much of the Islamist militant violence sweeping the country today.
"For 10 years our rulers as an ally of the United States spilled the blood of this nation. We insisted in the past and say it again now - this is not our war," Gul told the crowd.
"The Pakistani nation will not allow the resumption of supplies to Nato troops in Afghanistan. If the rulers side with US aggression, the nation will rise against them," he warned.
Banners denounced US drone strikes targeting Taliban and al-Qaeda in the northwest, the government's decision to grant India most favoured nation status in a bid to ease trade, and re-opening the Afghan border to Nato convoys.
"Go America Go" and "No to Nato," screamed out posters.
The government banned three key members of the alliance from attending, including Hafiz Saeed, who heads Jamaat-ud-Dawa, seen as a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
Organisers said they would not challenge the ban "to avoid confrontation with the government".
"We have installed 10 000 chairs for today's rally and expect a very successful show," Yahya Mujahid, a spokesperson for JuD, said.
The US government last week expressed concern about Saeed's appearance at a coalition rally in Karachi, saying that Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa had been blacklisted because of associations with al-Qaeda.
Pakistan put Saeed under house arrest in December 2008, a month after the Mumbai attacks, but he was released in 2009.
In 2010, the country's highest court upheld his release on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence that he should be detained. JuD operates openly as a charity across the country.