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US Embassy says US gave money to Pakistani group that supported extremist

The U.S. gave money to a Pakistani Muslim group that organized anti-Taliban rallies, but which later demonstrated in support of an extremist who killed a leading liberal politician, the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan said Wednesday.

The grant highlights the difficulties facing Washington as it seeks partners to support religious moderation in Pakistan. Last month, The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Embassy had created a counter-extremism unit to perform that mission.

U.S. government website Usaspending.gov shows that the group, the Sunni Ittehad Council, received $36,607 from Washington in 2009.

A U.S. diplomat said that the embassy had given money to the group to organize the rallies, but that it had since changed direction and leadership. He said it was a one-off grant, and wouldn't be repeated. He didn't give his name because he wasn't authorized to speak about the issue on the record.

The grant was first reported by the Council of Foreign Relations on its website.

The Ittehad council was formed in 2009 to counter extremism. It groups politicians and clerics from Pakistan's traditionalist Barelvi Muslim movement, often referred to as theological moderates in the Pakistani context.

The American money was used to organize nationwide rallies against militants and suicide bombings, the embassy official said. The demonstrations received widespread media coverage, and were some of the first against extremism in the country.

The rhetoric at the rallies was mostly focused on opposing militant attacks on shrines, which Barelvis frequent but are opposed by Deobandi Muslims, Pakistan's other main Muslim sect. Deobandis dominate the ranks of the Taliban and other extremists. Some view Barelvis as heretics.

In 2011 and also this month, however, the council led demonstrations in support of the killer of Salman Taseer, a governor who was killed a year ago for his criticism of anti-blasphemy laws used to persecute religious minorities. The displays have appalled Pakistani liberals and stoked international fears that the country is buckling under the weight of extremism.

Taseer's assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, is a Barelvi. He claimed he acted to defend the honor of the prophet Mohammed, a cause that is especially dear to Barelvis.

At its rallies, the group maintains its criticism of the Taliban even as it supports Qadri -- a seemingly contradictory stance that suggests its leaders may be more interested in harnessing the political support and street power of Barelvis than in genuinely countering militancy.

Two leading members of the council who have been with the group from the beginning of its existence denied receiving any American funds. The apparent discrepancy could be explained by lack of transparency within the organization. However, given the current anti-American climate, owning up to receiving funds from the United States would invite criticism.

"This propaganda is being unleashed against us because we are strongly opposed to Western democracy and American policies in the region and in the world," said Sahibzada Fazal Karim, the head of the council, before reiterating the group's support for Qadri.

"We are against extremism, but we support Qadri because he did a right thing," he said.

Muslim groups and clerics in Pakistan have a long history of receiving money from foreign countries. Deobandi clerics have received millions of dollars over the last 20 years from Gulf nations to promote their austere brand of Islam and an anti-Shiite agenda. Iran has in turn funded Shiite groups.