- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

The Pakistani military is privately warning the country's largest religious party to distance itself from al Qaida by the end of March or face a crackdown, a senior security official told United Press International Wednesday.

Since the beginning of the year, Pakistani intelligence agents have arrested at least four al Qaida suspects from the homes of leaders of Jamaat-i-Islami — Pakistan's main religious party, which has dozens of members of parliament and controls a number of ministerial posts in a key regional government.

Most recently, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is believed to have planned the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, was seized at the residence of a Jamaat leader at the weekend.

Other officials in Islamabad confirmed by telephone that the ultimatum had been conveyed to Jamaat through what they called "the usual channels" — a reference to the widely known private contacts maintained with religious extremists by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the feared spy agency.

"This is a wake-up call for the government, which was hoping to bring religious parties into the political mainstream," one senior security official said.

Soon after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf ordered a crackdown on Islamic extremist groups. But this new message is the first time the government has been forced to consider a similar action against a legal — and popular — political party.

The military is not alone in urging the Jamaat to stay away from al Qaida. And other messages are being sent in private.

"It is no coincidence that all four suspects were arrested from the homes of Jamaat leaders," Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat told police officers at the National Police Academy in Islamabad on Tuesday. "Jamaat has a lot of explaining to do."

Addressing the same audience, Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali urged "the press and the nation" to ask Jamaat "what these people were doing" in the homes of Jamaat leaders.

"We will not be lenient with those who are associated with terrorists," he added.

Political analysts say that such senior officials in the new civilian government — which needs the support of religious parties in parliament to stay in power — would not have issued such blunt criticisms of the country's largest Islamic party had they not been deeply concerned about ties between the Jamaat and al Qaida.

They say that Jamali, who is coming to Washington this month on his first official visit to the United States, wants Jamaat to make clear its position before his scheduled meeting with President George W. Bush on March 28.

They also say statements about a major political party, which has been a force in Pakistani politics for more than 50 years and is known for its expertise in arranging street protests, must have also been cleared by the military patrons of the civilian government.

As much a social movement as a political party, Jamaat is widely regarded as the most organized and powerful force in Pakistani society after the military itself and is believed to have more than 700,000 dedicated followers across the country.

Founded in 1943 in British India, the Jamaat played a key role in the war against the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It supported warlord Gulbadin Hekmatyar who was last month declared a terrorist by the U.S. State Department — though during the Soviet-Afghan war, he was a major recipient of U.S. weapons and money.

The war also allowed the Jamaat to train hundreds of militants in Afghanistan, where they developed close ties with other Islamic groups, including al Qaida, while fighting the Soviets.

Jamaat has close links with international Islamic movements and books written by the party's founder, Maulana Maududi, are considered obligatory reading by Islamists across the globe.

It boasts thousands of students among its workers and in the past has used them to arrange strikes and protests. It is generally believed in Pakistan that the Jamaat has the power to bring the country to a halt within 24 hours and the party has often demonstrated its ability during anti-government protests.

The party has a secretive five-tier structure that has enabled it to beat back previous efforts to control its activities. In the 1950s, the government disbanded Jamaat, but the country's superior courts later revoked the ban.

Any Pakistani Muslim, male or female, can join the Jamaat as a supporter by filling out a simple form. A supporter is then observed by the Jamaat leaders for a year or two before being invited to become a formal follower, or worker.

It takes another year or two for a worker to become a "comrade or a friend" and three or four years to become a "rukn" or a full member. A rukn then moves on to become a member of the consultative council, which runs the affairs of the Jamaat.

The party has its own manifesto and flag; while joining the Jamaat every prospective rukn has to take an oath of allegiance that says: "From today, my prayers, my sleep, my life and my death is dedicated to God, the lord of universe."

Such close and secretive party structure has also helped keep Jamaat from breaking into smaller factions, like other Pakistani parties.

Analysts say that it won't be easy to disband the Jamaat. "If disbanded, the Jamaat will simply go underground and may even become more effective," said Rashid Khalid, who teaches politics at Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University. And "slapping a ban would further increase violent tendencies in Jamaat and other Islamic groups," he added.

That's why the government is reluctant to make any move against Jamaat without first giving it the opportunity to distance itself from al Qaida, analysts assert.

But Jamaat's chief Qazi Hussain Ahmad insists that his party has no connections with al Qaida. "No al Qaida suspect was arrested from the homes of our leaders. These are all lies, an international conspiracy to ban Jamaat by linking it to al Qaida," he told reporters in Islamabad.

"The government and its patrons," he said, "are afraid of the support the religious parties received from the Pakistani people in the previous elections and want to force us out of the political arena."

Being the largest political party, enjoying substantial support among the educated urban middle class and with a long history of participation in parliamentary elections, Jamaat-i-Islami was expected to play a key role in Musharraf's project to bring the Islamic parties into the political mainstream, one official said.

Before the prime minister's meeting with Bush, "the Jamaat will have to decide whether it wants to become a part of the mainstream along with other religious parties or associate with groups like al Qaida and face the wrath of the Pakistani military as well as the international community," he added.

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