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Ill-equipped police lack funds, intel to combat rising militancy in Pakistan's heartland

LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — In Pakistan's heartland of Punjab, the front line force against the surge in Islamic militant attacks is a poorly equipped, incompetent and corrupt police.

And that's only part of the problem.

Police complain powerful Pakistani intelligence agencies fail to share crucial information, while the province's government remains reluctant to act against influential militant groups.

Taliban fighters along the Afghan border orchestrate attacks in Punjab by teaming up with local militants who were once supported by the Pakistani government to fight in Kashmir and Afghanistan. They have turned against their former masters because of the country's close alliance with the U.S.

Lahore, the provincial capital and Pakistan's second largest city, is increasingly targeted. Just two years ago it was rarely blighted by bombings. In the last month alone, attacks have killed at least 135 people, including 42 who died last week when two suicide bombers detonated their explosives among thousands visiting the famous shrine of an 11th century Sufi saint.

The strength of the police is critical for combating that violence because the government cannot rely on the military to battle militants as it has done in the rugged, northwestern tribal areas.

While police have sometimes been commended for extreme bravery in the face of suicide attacks, their reputation is generally poor. Police often extract bribes from citizens, and Transparency International says they are the most corrupt public sector agency in Pakistan.

In addition, they are often poorly trained in carrying out investigations and regularly use torture to elicit confessions, Hassan Abbas, a Columbia University professor who previously worked with the Pakistani police, said in a recent report.

Even the Punjab police chief admits the force is struggling.

"It was a strain to handle traditional crime like theft, murder and property disputes," Tariq Salim Dogar told The Associated Press.

"The present dimension is totally new for all members of the police and other branches, with car bombs, suicide attacks and militants targeting law enforcement agencies," he said.

The issue has raised concerns in Washington, prompting the U.S. to budget millions of dollars in aid for the first time to boost police capabilities in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and the key to stability or chaos in this nuclear-armed nation.

Thursday's shrine bombing also drew attention to a lack of coordination between security agencies, with police complaining they lack actionable intelligence to prevent attacks. That was echoed by the party that governs Punjab — which is in opposition to the national government and often bickers with it over who is to blame for failing to stop militant violence.

"We are not getting good intelligence from the intelligence agencies, especially the Intelligence Bureau and others under the Interior Ministry, which I think is important if we have to fight terrorism," said former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the country's main opposition leader, whose brother is the chief elected official for Punjab.

Interior Minister Rehman Malik denied any problems with intelligence sharing and said that his ministry warned the Punjab government a few days before the latest attack that a mosque or shrine might be targeted.

Local Punjab officials dismissed the intelligence they receive as too vague and pointed to the country's most powerful spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, as the group that most needs to cooperate. ISI, which is controlled by the military, has the closest historical links to the banned militant groups whose members are believed to be carrying out attacks in Punjab.

"As far as intelligence sharing is concerned, it is an old and unpleasant experience that valuable intelligence is not shared by any agency with any other they consider rivals," said Dogar, the Punjab police chief.

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, who controls the provincial police, said ISI is the only group that has the capability to track militants through their cell phone calls, e-mail and other communications.

Sanaullah said they often ask ISI for help in tracking cell phone calls, but either don't receive assistance or get the information days after it is useful. He has pleaded with the federal government unsuccessfully to transfer this capability to the province.

"Our law enforcement agencies don't have the resources they need to fight terrorism," said Sanaullah. "Without this, our forces can offer their lives to the terrorists, but they can't defend effectively."

ISI did not respond to AP's attempts to get their comment.

The Punjab police budget more than doubled in the past five years to roughly $500 million, largely from salary increases. But officers are still short of many basic resources, including communications equipment and armored personnel carriers, said Sanaullah. There are only 5,000 bullet proof vests for a force numbering 170,000, he said.

When gunmen and suicide bombers attacked two mosques of the minority Ahmadi sect in Lahore about a month ago, killing 93 people, one policeman told a witness that he couldn't fight back because he only had four bullets in his gun.

At least 30 police stations in Punjab don't even have buildings, forcing the officers to operate out of tents that are highly vulnerable to militant attacks, said a senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

After the Sufi shrine attack, the interior minister acknowledged that Punjab police lack sufficient capacity and promised to ask the prime minister to transfer additional funds.

The U.S. has also begun to focus on the problem, budgeting $15 million for civilian law enforcement in Punjab that it hopes to allocate in the coming months, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Richard Snelsire. Past assistance has been focused on bolstering elite police in the northwest near Afghanistan, he said.

Abbas, the Columbia University professor, said additional funds would be welcomed but would not solve the most fundamental problem hobbling the police in Punjab and elsewhere in Pakistan: political interference in the appointment of officers.

"You have people sitting in the hierarchy who are only there because they have political connections, which is a recipe for disaster," said Abbas.

Several senior police officials echoed this complaint, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Political interference prevents the appointment of officers based on merit and also deters police from pursuing cases that might upset their political masters, said Abbas.

The latter problem is particularly important in Punjab because analysts say the provincial government is reluctant to go after banned militant groups that can deliver key votes during elections. Sanaullah, the law minister, even campaigned alongside members of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba group in March.

"If we are going to win this battle against militancy, the police is the primary institution that can do it," said Abbas. "But the kind of urgency and revolutionary zeal for reform that is needed is missing."

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Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Babar Dogar contributed to this report.