JHANG, Pakistan — The reputed leader of a banned Islamic militant group that has worked closely with the Afghan Taliban — and by extension with al Qaida — is running for parliament in Pakistan's general election on Monday, despite the country's key role as an ally in the U.S. "war on terror."
Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi is running as an independent in the central town of Jhang in Pakistan's populous Punjab province, but he's widely regarded as the head of the proscribed extremist organization Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.
The bearded cleric stands a very good chance of winning Monday, according to local officials. Sipah-e-Sahaba was founded in 1985 in Jhang, where it still enjoys its strongest following. Its rise to influence has been built on the economic divide between the richer landowning inhabitants of the area, who come from the minority Shiite sect of Islam, and the poorer Sunni population.
In the past, Sipah-e-Sahaba was widely reported to have operated with the support of the Pakistan military's Inter-services Intelligence Directorate, or ISID.
"This is (an) al Qaida constituency," said Sheikh Waqas, Ludhianvi's main opponent, referring to the strength of support for Sipah-e-Sahaba. In 2002, the former leader of the group, Azam Tariq was freed from jail in order to run for parliament, and he won. He was later assassinated.
"I am under threat of suicide bombing," said Waqas, who is the incumbent member of parliament, having squeezed through in a 2004 election, when the seat became vacant.
He said that despite the fact he is a candidate for the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Q, which backs President Pervez Musharraf, he has received no help from Islamabad or the local administration.
"I went to the assembly with just one agenda: to put an end to this terrorist operation. But for the last three years, I have not only been fighting the terrorists, I have had to fight my own government. They just don't listen," Waqas said.
In fact, Ludhianvi's running mate for the constituency, Sheikh Yacoob, who is campaigning for a seat in the provincial assembly and appears on election posters with the mullah, is a candidate for the ruling Q-League.
Ludhianvi "is a terrorist," charged Waqas, who relies on 12 private gunmen and five armed police officers for protection. "How can a party be banned and the chief allowed to stand? This is a joke."
Ludhianvi's name is on Pakistan's terrorist watchlist. He hasn't been convicted of any terrorism-related offenses, but his role in about a dozen cases is under investigation.
Kunwar Dilshad, the secretary of the election commission in Islamabad, which oversees the polling process, said that any objection to Ludhianvi's candidacy should have been lodged when he filed nomination papers in the constituency.
"No one complained," Dilshad said.
A Western diplomat in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital, said since Ludhianvi hasn't been convicted as a terrorist, he should be allowed to run for office. "He should be able to stand unless he can be proved to be a terrorist," said the diplomat, who refused to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak on the issue.
In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Sipah-e-Sahaba was banned by Musharraf, whom Washington regards as a bulwark against extremism.
The organization, which then went underground, has been accused of hundreds of sectarian murders of the minority Shiite Muslim sect as well as the executions of Iranian diplomats in the Afghan city of Mazar-I-Sharif at the time of the Taliban takeover in 1998. More worrisome for American authorities, Pakistani terrorism experts say Sunni sectarian groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba have adopted the global jihadist agenda of al Qaida.
Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies in Islamabad, said that Ludhianvi is the undeclared leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba. He pointed out that some of the group's past leaders also ran for election as independents.
Sipah-e-Sahaba "is still dangerous and can pose a sectarian threat whenever they will find room," Rana said. "Even now their workers are operating under cover of jihad groups."
Although Sipah-e-Sahaba is less active than it was in the 1990s, police in the Punjabi city of Lahore last weekend arrested 30 alleged members of the group, reportedly with a cache of weapons and "hate literature."
Interviewed as he campaigned in the constituency, Ludhianvi said he was standing as an independent, not as a member or head of Sipah-e-Sahaba. Speaking in gentle and measured tones in Urdu, he said his aim was to "give love and peace to my voters." He voiced no sectarian or violent sentiment.
However, while denying his links to Sipah-e-Sahaba, Ludhianvi praised past leaders of the group, including the founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi — "he gave courage to the poor" — and the most recent previous leader, Azam Tariq — "he sacrificed his life for this mission." Both men were assassinated. He also said that "we" have filed a court petition challenging the ban on the Sipah-e-Sahaba.
"We hate terrorism," said Ludhianvi, who was traveling with three gunmen. "People cannot love extremists as they love us."
As he toured the constituency, he stressed practical, everyday concerns, rather than any austere religious message. He pledged to bring gas to every home and establish a university for Jhang. The constituents gave him a warm reception.
One voter, who went by the single name of Shahaab, in an area on the outskirts of Jhang called Basti Ghazi Shah, said that he would vote for Ludhianvi "because this candidate will not tell a lie."
Another, Ijaz Ahmed Khan, said: "People just want their basic problems solved. He (Ludhianvi) has a good attitude to the poor. ... The other candidates are just landlords (large landowners)."
Back in the town center, bookstore owner and part-time journalist Khuram Saeed, said: "In Jhang, the vote is either pro-Sipah-e-Sahaba or anti-Sipah-e-Sahaba. The group's 40,000 vote-bank is intact. It's just a question of whether the 65,000 or 70,000 anti-vote gets divided."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)