- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani Taliban and allied members of al Qaeda, under new pressure from a U.S. and Pakistani offensive, may join forces with a militant Sunni Muslim group called Jundallah, which has staged attacks on Iran and strained Iranian-Pakistani relations, military specialists say.

Ashraf Ali, a Peshawar-based specialist on the Taliban, told The Washington Times that given Jundallah’s historical connections with al Qaeda and the Taliban, Taliban militants led by Baitullah Mehsud and his al Qaeda allies might seek refuge in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province or join the ranks of Jundallah.

Pakistan and the United States are mounting an offensive against Mehsud in the tribal regions north of Baluchistan along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

“This would give a totally new dimension to the dynamics of Taliban/al Qaeda militancy in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and may shift some of the problem to the Pakistan-Iran border region,” Mr. Ali said. “This is very much possible, as apparently there seems to be no [Pakistani] troops deployment on the south of the conflict zone towards Baluchistan.”

Pakistan’s Baluchistan province is situated next to Mehsud’s tribal territory in South Waziristan, the renewed theater of Pakistan’s anti-Taliban offensive.

Last week, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives at a hotel in Baluchistan’s Kalat district, killing four people and wounding 11. The attack appeared aimed at disrupting supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan, since drivers of NATO supply vehicles were eating at the hotel.

Analysts said the incident is a sign of rising Taliban/al Qaeda militancy in Baluchistan, as well as a possible indication of growing contacts between Waziristan-based militant groups and Jundallah.

Malik Siraj Akbar, an analyst based in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan, told The Washington Times that Abdul Malik Rigi, the leader of Jundullah, studied at madrassas in Karachi, where Taliban leaders also got their schooling.

Mr. Rigi frequents the Pakistani border towns of Taftan, Turbat and Pajgoor and is always accompanied by 15 to 20 armed guards, Mr. Akbar said.

Jundallah, which means “Army of God” or “God’s Brigade,” has been active since 2003 and is made up of Baluchis — a Sunni Muslim group that straddles the Iran-Pakistan border.

The group “has been demanding that Iranian Baluchis, mostly Sunnis, should be given equal rights like Shi’ites … and should be appointed to key government positions,” Mr. Akbar said. He said Mr. Rigi contends that his organization has no links to Pakistani Baluchi separatist groups seeking an independent Greater Baluchistan, encompassing Baluch areas in both Iran and Pakistan.

Although Mr. Rigi also denies any link with al Qaeda, specialists say Jundallah was founded by a Pakistan Taliban commander, Nek Mohammed Wazir, who had links to al Qaeda. In 2004, two other Jundallah members were arrested in Karachi in connection with an unsuccessful attack on the Pakistan army’s Karachi corps commander.

The possibility of a new alliance among the Taliban, al Qaeda and Jundallah could provide common ground among the United States, Pakistan and Iran against the militant threat.

On May 28, a bomb attack on a Shi’ite mosque in the Iranian city of Zahedan, on the border with Pakistan, killed 20 people and wounded 50. The following day, gunmen attacked an election campaign office in Zahedan of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. No one was killed in the incident.

Abdel Raouf Rigi, a Jundallah spokesman, told the Arabic television channel Al Arabiya that a suicide bomber had targeted a secret meeting of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards inside the Amir al-Mohmenin mosque.

Iranian authorities also blamed Jundallah for the attack on Mr. Ahmadinejad’s office.

On May 30, Iranian authorities said three men convicted of smuggling explosives from Pakistan to Iran were publicly executed by hanging near the mosque. Reportedly, all three were already in detention when the bombing occurred and had been tried for a string of bombings claimed by Jundallah in the past.

Zahedan is the capital of Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province, which shares a border with Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. The Iranian province has been the scene of frequent clashes among Iranian police, drug dealers and ethnic militants.

Iranian authorities have accused the United States of supporting Jundallah to try to destabilize Iran, a charge the U.S. has repeatedly denied.

Iran also says the group is connected to the Taliban, profits from the opium trade and also gets financial and ideological support from Saudi Arabia in collusion with the Pakistani intelligence agency and other Pakistani hard-line Sunni groups.

The volatile internal situation in Iran after the recent disputed presidential elections could also attract al Qaeda and the Taliban to the Iranian border.

“If militants from Waziristan come toward Baluchistan and join the ranks of Jundallah, it could become a big problem for Iran,” said Quetta-based political analyst Wajid Khan.

“This may compel Iran to actively join U.S. and allies’ anti-al Qaeda and Taliban offensive in the region,” he said. “President Obama had also wished sometime back for Iran to become part of international coalition efforts to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

Pakistani officials have in the past tolerated Jundallah as a strategic asset against Iran. Mr. Khan said Pakistani intelligence agents supported Jundallah as a counterweight to groups seeking an independent Baluchistan.

“This would help Pakistani agencies to divide the Baluch society on religious and secular lines to its own benefit,” Mr. Khan said.

However, the militant threat is jeopardizing the start of a gas pipeline intended to link Iran and India through Pakistan.

The “Peace Pipeline” has been enthusiastically endorsed by Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who is seeking transit revenues as well as natural gas.

“After getting a completely cold shoulder during his last visit to Saudi Arabia to address the adverse energy problems of Pakistan and also failing to get any aid package, let alone a special one, from the Saudis … this made Zardari seek Iran’s support to overcome the countrys energy crisis,” said a senior official in Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

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