ISLAMABAD – The man who made Pakistan into a nuclear power and later admitted to leaking atomic secrets to Iran, North Korea and Libya is going into politics, aiming to shake up the country ahead of national elections.
That could provoke some grumbling in the United States, where Abdul Qadeer Khan is viewed as a pariah. At home, however, he is a national hero for his pivotal role in developing nuclear weapons and has been lionized by Islamists for making Pakistan the world's only Muslim nuclear power.
It's unclear whether the 76-year-old nuclear scientist will be able to translate this public adoration into political support.
The goal of Khan's new movement — Tehreek-e-Tahaffuz Pakistan, or Movement for Protection of Pakistan — is not to field candidates, but to encourage young Pakistanis to participate in upcoming elections and reject "incompetent politicians," Khan told The Associated Press during an interview Tuesday.
National elections are scheduled to take place by June 2013, although they could be called earlier.
"The leaders of most of the big political parties are robbers and corrupt," said Khan, who announced his new movement this week.
He took aim at President Asif Ali Zardari, co-leader of the ruling Pakistan People's Party, and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, head of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
A senior politician from Sharif's party, Zafarul Haq, said the group had always tried to field honest and capable candidates.
Fawad Chaudhry, an adviser to Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, who is also from the ruling party, dismissed Khan's criticism.
"I am surprised over his allegations against the top political leadership of Pakistan, and I want to remind Dr. Qadeer that at least no politician has sold uranium or nuclear technology to other countries," said Chaudhry.
Khan also criticized Imran Khan, a cricket star who has become a rising force in politics as the head of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or Movement for Justice. Imran Khan has campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and has generated excitement among young people, but the scientist accused him of allowing corrupt politicians to join his party.
"The youth are 47 percent of our population, and they can turn the table by rejecting robbers and incompetent politicians like Asif Ali Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan," said the scientist.
A leader of Imran Khan's party in Islamabad, Salman Malik, denied they had invited any corrupt politicians to join them.
Abdul Qadeer Khan suggested that young Pakistanis field their own non-political candidates, such as scientists, engineers, teachers and retired bureaucrats.
Such candidates would likely have difficulty competing with the country's main political parties.
Also, Khan could have difficulty achieving his political goals because the government limits his movement.
He was detained in 2003 and admitted on television in 2004 that he operated a network that spread nuclear weapons technology to Iran, North Korea and Libya.
Pakistan has insisted that Khan's proliferation network has been shut down, but the U.S. still has concerns because American investigators have never been able to question him. The U.S. is especially worried about Iran's nuclear program amid fears the country could one day seek to build a nuclear bomb.
After Khan admitted leaking atomic secrets, he was immediately pardoned by former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and placed under de facto house arrest. The government ended his house arrest in 2009 but still limits his movement to some extent.
The scientist said he would visit schools and convene seminars in Pakistan's major cities, but would not hold public rallies.
"I will go to colleges and universities and tell youths that they should reject the candidates of incompetent and corrupt political leadership," Khan said.