- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan A coalition of Islamist parties in Pakistan yesterday named as its prime-ministerial candidate a man who supports Osama bin Laden and once called on Muslims to kill Americans.
Fazlur Rehman, who was arrested last year during the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan for openly proclaiming links with bin Laden, won the nod from a bloc of six Islamist parties that made surprising gains in parliamentary elections last week.
The coalition, known as the Mutahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), lacks the seats in the National Assembly to form a government. That makes it unlikely that Mr. Rehman will become prime minister.
But no other party has a majority, either, putting the MMA in the position of kingmaker and placing Mr. Rehman and fellow Islamists in line for senior positions in Pakistan's next government.
By nominating Mr. Rehman, the MMA sent a message to the two main contenders for power in parliament that it would exact a high price to help either form a government.
The Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), or PML(Q), which supports President Pervez Musharraf, has the most number of seats in parliament but is far short of an outright majority.
It will need the support of not only the MMA, but also several other smaller parties and independents to form a coalition government.
The other main contender, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), headed by exiled former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, also is wooing the MMA.
Mrs. Bhutto said in London that her party could form an alliance with the MMA if it moderated its demand that all U.S. military personnel leave Pakistan.
U.S. troops are based in Pakistan's Jacobabad air base, from where they conduct search and rescue operations in Afghanistan. Some U.S. personnel are also helping Pakistani authorities hunt al Qaeda fugitives along the country's border with Afghanistan.
Neither of the top two parties had any immediate comment on Mr. Rehman's nomination.
Mr. Rehman heads the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islami party, one of the most extreme members of the MMA alliance.
In 1998, when the United States bombed purported al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Mr. Rehman issued a decree instructing Muslims to kill Americans if bin Laden were to die in the attacks.
In a press conference in Islamabad on Tuesday, Mr. Rehman struck a more conciliatory note.
"We want friendship with the entire world without compromising our national interests and sovereignty," he said.
Mr. Rehman's party has set up hundreds of madrassas, or religious schools, which educated virtually all of the Taliban's top leaders before they took over Afghanistan in the 1990s.
It has an especially large following in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, where it won a majority in the provincial legislature, and in Baluchistan. The two provinces border Afghanistan.
The madrassas are expected to graduate more than 74,000 young clerics this year and are blamed for the so-called "Talibanization" of the tribal regions along Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.
Mr. Rehman's party is also known to have links with several extremist groups, including Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which were among seven Islamist organizations banned by Gen. Musharraf between August 2001 and January 2002.
Apart from Mr. Rehman's party, the MMA includes an even more extreme party led by Sufi Mohammed, who organized a ragtag army of several thousand young Pakistani "jihadis" and sent them into Afghanistan last fall to fight alongside the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Mohammed is serving a jail term, but his deputies campaigned actively for the Oct. 10 elections.
"We are going to have a very difficult parliament, [which will] want to undo most of the laws that were enacted by Pervez Musharraf," said one Pakistani analyst, who asked not to be named. "There's going to be a big confrontation."
But an even bigger concern, he said, is what happens over the next few years, with the clerics almost certain to win key posts in the government.
The MMA signaled after the elections that it was ready to challenge Gen. Musharraf, who took power in a 1999 military coup, by pledging not to take an oath in parliament.
An oath is mandatory under Gen. Musharraf's Legal Framework Order, which he used to give himself five more years as president.
The chances of the MMA softening its stance on the presence of U.S. soldiers appeared remote. The bloc is also seeking to impose Islamic law in the country.
The MMA won 45 seats in the elections, eclipsing the performance of religious parties in the 1997 elections when just two seats were won. Its tally is expected to rise to at least 50 when ballots from semiautonomous tribal areas in western Pakistan are counted.
The results make them the third-largest party behind the PML(Q), which has 77 seats, and Mrs. Bhutto's PPP, which won 62 seats.


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