FAISALABAD, Pakistan — Even the Pakistan army conducts military operations against Taliban guerrillas in northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, banned al Qaida-linked groups are operating openly in the Pakistani heartland of Punjab, which itself has been the target of dozens of terror attacks.
The province on Pakistan's eastern border with India is home to more than half the country's population and functions as its economic and political powerhouse, as well as the main recruiting ground for the military.
It is the stronghold of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who leads the opposition to President Asif Zardari's Pakistan Peoples Party, which rules nationally from Islamabad.
Critics accuse Sharif and his brother, the chief minister, of accommodating extremist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba, a banned sectarian group blamed for the killing of hundreds of Shiites, the minority sect of Islam. The Sharifs draw political support from the religious right.
During a recent election campaign, Punjab's law minister, Rana Sanaullah, who is close to the Sharifs, seemed to endorse Sipah-e-Sahaba when he traveled in a triumphal motorcade with Ahmed Ludhianvi, the alleged leader of the group in the town of Jhang, in southern Punjab province.
They were surrounded by the green and red flags of Sipah-e-Sahaba, and the group's gunmen provided security, working alongside the Punjab police. The crowd showered rose petals on the pair, who stood in an open vehicle, garlands around their necks.
Sanaullah denied that there was any danger of extremists taking over parts of Punjab.
"There is no Talibanization in Punjab. Not a single street where you can say there is a no-go area," Sanaullah told McClatchy.
The federally appointed provincial governor disagreed.
"The Sharifs are creating a potential bomb here in Punjab," Salman Taseer, the governor, told McClatchy in an interview. "These (militant) groups are armed and dangerous. There is no way you can accommodate these people. There has to be zero tolerance."
Punjab government officials and police personnel insist that Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad, another major military group, are not involved in terror activity within Pakistan.
That view is not shared by U.S. officials, who are now broadening their attention from what had been a singular focus on Pakistan's northwest fringe. Both Punjabi groups are thought to have links to al Qaida.
"We think there also needs to be progress against these Punjab-based groups, many of which, by the way, are targeting Pakistan, as well," Robert Blake, an assistant secretary of state, told reporters in Washington earlier this month after returning from Pakistan.
Although security in the provinces is a local responsibility, the growth of the banned groups in Pakistan's industrial and political heartland raises new questions about the commitment of the country's security services, especially its Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency, to cracking down on the Islamic extremists they created to wage a proxy war against rival India over the divided Kashmir region.
In March, Nawaz Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is chief minister of Punjab, provoked an outcry when he appealed in a speech to the Taliban to spare his province violence because his party, known as PML-N, shared their ideals. He contrasted his party's position to that of Pakistan's previous ruler, military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf.
"Gen. Musharraf planned a bloodbath of innocent Muslims at the behest of others only to prolong his rule, but we in the PML-N opposed his policies and rejected dictation from abroad," Shahbaz Sharif said in an address delivered at a religious seminary in Lahore, the provincial capital."If the Taliban are also fighting for the same cause then they should not carry out acts of terror in Punjab."
Militancy appears to be on the rise. Police in recent weeks have traced a spate of armed robberies and kidnappings of the Ahmedi religious sect in the central Punjabi city of Faisalabad to members of Jamaat ud Dawa, the group previously known as Lashkar-e-Taiba that was blamed for the devastating 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India.
Three Ahmedis were also shot dead, in what was likely to be the work of the same outfit. Jamaat ud Dawa is focused against India and was not previously known for violence inside Paksitan. The United Nations labeled Jamaat ud Dawa a terrorist group in the wake of the Mumbai attack.
In March, Jamaat ud Dawa held a public rally in Lahore, marching down the colonial-era Mall Road, the city's main thoroughfare, to protest against India "stealing" water from rivers that flow from its territory into Pakistan.
The recent admission in U.S. federal court by an American citizen, David Headley, that he scouted targets for the Mumbai attacks raised the profile of Lashkar-e-Taiba, with which he was affiliated. A recent Pentagon report found that Lashkar-e-Taiba was active in the insurgency in Afghanistan.
McClatchy reported in September that another banned group, Jaish-e-Mohammad, whose orientation is anti-India, was operating openly from Bahawalpur, another town in Punjab, and had expanded to a new site on the outskirts of town.
Sheikh Waqas Akram, an opposition member of parliament from Jhang, which is the headquarters of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba, likened the situation in Punjab to the Swat valley, where official inaction led to the area being taken over by Taliban in 2008.
"There can be ten Swats in Punjab, if you don't check them (extremists)," said Akram. "These groups are connecting up, they are increasing their political influence, they are spreading to new districts."
Unlike the Taliban in the northwest, extremist groups in the Punjab have not sought to capture territory or enforce Islamic law but operate out of seminaries and compounds amid the population.
Sanaullah insisted that groups based in the north west were behind the terrorist attacks in Punjab, not local groups and that "95 percent of the people of Sipah-e-Sahaba are not terrorists".
"We must persuade these persons to put aside their guns, to participate in elections," said Sanaullah. "They have the right to vote, so why can't I ask them (Sipah-e-Sahaba) for votes?"
But independent experts believe that the attempt to distinguish among militant groups overlooks the fluidity of individual membership in the groups. The Pakistani Taliban's leader, Hakimullah Mehsud is a former member of Sipah-e-Sahaba, as is the head of the Taliban's suicide training squad, Qari Hussain. The Pakistani Taliban's spokesman calls himself after a former head of Sipah-e-Sahaba. Jaish-e-Mohammad, another group supposedly not involved in domestic terrorism, provided many of the commanders and for the Taliban's takeover of Swat valley.
Mehsud was reported dead in February from a U.S. missile attack in Pakistan's tribal area. But Pakistani intelligence reported Thursday that it now believed him to be alive.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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