JHANG, Pakistan – JHANG, Pakistan (AP) — It's a troubling trend in Pakistan's biggest and richest province of Punjab: Leaders there are tolerating and in some cases promoting some of the country's most violent Islamist militant groups.
Provincial officials have ignored repeated calls to crack down on militant groups with a strong presence here, with one senior minister campaigning publicly with members of an extremist group that calls for Shiite Muslims to be killed.
Some of the militant groups are allied with the northwest-based Pakistani Taliban, which claimed responsibility for a failed car bombing in New York City last week. A group based in Punjab, Jaish-e-Mohammed, also has been implicated as having possible links to one of the people detained in Pakistan in connection with the bombing attempt.
The head of the Punjab government, Shahbaz Sharif, even asked militants not to attack his province — because he was not following the dictates of the United States to fight them — much to the dismay of the central Pakistani government.
"It makes the Punjab a de facto sanctuary for the militants and extremists that the Pakistan army is fighting in the frontier and in the tribal areas," said Aida Hussain, a former ambassador to the United States and prominent Shiite leader. "In fact this is an undermining of the armed forces of Pakistan and it is an undermining of constitutional governance."
Critics believe the policy of tolerance is a shortsighted bid by Sharif and his brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for political support in the predominantly Sunni province, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of Pakistan's 175 million people and much of the country's wealth.
Punjabi militants have won over fellow followers of the Deobandi sect of Islam with their radical religious interpretations and outspoken assaults on minority Shiites. This translates into votes that leaders of radical groups can bring to local politicians on both the right and the left.
"It's all about political expediency rather than outright support for these groups," said Moeed Yusuf of the United States Institute of Peace. He said the policy was risky because it sends the wrong signal to Pakistanis who have rallied behind the military in its assault on extremists in the Afghan border areas.
Signs of a militant Islamist presence are everywhere in this region.
In the blisteringly hot central Punjab town of Jhang, the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, or Guardians of the Friends of the Prophet, has been emboldened by conciliatory signals from local authorities. After being courted for votes last March, the group ripped off yellow government seals and reopened its offices.
Their distinctive green, black and white striped flags fly defiantly atop homes and mosques. The maze of narrow streets in Jhang is littered with graffiti in support of the SSP, even though then-President Pervez Musharraf banned the organization in 2002.
The group's supporters rant against Shiites, whom they revile as heretics, demand the release of some of the country's most wanted terrorists and give sermons urging the faithful to attack their enemies.
Just a few miles (kilometers) from the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore is the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is banned in Pakistan, India, the United States and other countries but is now under provincial government protection. India blames Lashkar-e-Taiba for the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai and routinely harangues Pakistan for allowing its leader, Hafiz Saeed, to remain free. Pakistani authorities point to its courts, which have repeatedly said there is not enough evidence to hold him.
And in the southern Punjab city of Bawahalpur is the headquarters of Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group possibly linked to a suspect in the Times Square bombing case. The group's leader, Masood Azhar, was among three militants freed by India in 1999 in exchange for the release of passengers aboard a hijacked Indian Airlines plane to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
"Until the (Pakistani) leadership understands the real nature of these groups, and embraces the fact that none of them can possibly remain biddable tools over the long term, Pakistan leaves itself open to being repeatedly stung," said Arthur Keller, an ex-CIA case officer in Pakistan.
Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan, who is in charge of enforcing the law in Punjab province, defended his decision to campaign alongside members of the Sipah-e-Sahaba group in March. The minister said the organization represents thousands of votes and cannot be ignored.
"I think all these fears and speculation are confused in the mind of the people...mostly outsiders," he said.
He said groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba were not taking part in the war against the Taliban in the northwest, but only resisting Indian control of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. And he said the Punjab government was hoping to moderate such groups.
"If they change their direction, become more progressive, that is good," he said.
Critics believe the Punjabi government is pursuing a dangerous course because militant Islamist groups are increasingly entwined.
"You promote one organization and indirectly you promote all of them," Sheikh Waqqas Akram, a parliamentarian from Jhang, told The Associated Press.
"The dynamics have changed in Pakistan. These organizations are interlinked, organized. They have the vehicles and the weapons to carry out terrorist activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan," Akram said. "If they are not the suicide bombers, they are the ones providing the (explosives) jackets. If they are not providing the jackets, then they are providing the houses. And if they are not providing the houses, then they are providing the food."
In an interview with the AP, the director-general of Sipah-e-Sahaba, Hamid Hussain Dehlo, denied working with other militant organizations, insisting his group's only agenda "is to fight against Shiite Muslims who are the worst kafirs in the whole universe," referring to Shiites by the Arab word for "nonbeliever."
Despite Dehlo's claim, there is evidence of links to other militant groups. A spinoff group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was believed to be involved in the 2002 kidnap-murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, and in the March 17, 2002 attack on the International Protestant Church in Islamabad during which five people, including an American mother and her daughter, were killed.
U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials believe Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has ties to the Pakistan Taliban, as well as al-Qaida.