Militant Sunni activists rally in Pakistani capital
ISLAMABAD, Apr 7 (Reuters) Thousands of activists from an outlawed Sunni Muslim militant group rallied in Pakistan's capital, calling for the establishment of an Islamic theocracy in the country and across the world.
Activists of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) openly distributed pamphlets preaching jihad, or holy war, and hatred against minority Shi'ites in Islamabad as their leaders delivered fiery speeches to a crowd of around 5,000 late yesterday.
They also sold video compact discs of beheadings of American soldiers in Iraq, militant activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan at the rally, which they said was convened to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad this month.
One of the organisers thanked the Islamabad administration for allowing the rally, which was held under floodlights in a bus depot, with hundreds of riot police watching on.
The rally was also addressed by Zaheer-ul-Islam Abbasi, a former general who was sacked and arrested in 1995 for trying to topple the government of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and the military's top brass with an aim to enforce a Taliban-like rule in the country.
''The concept of nation state is an obstacle in the way of establishment of Khilafat (puritanical Islamic rule),'' he said.
''We will start establishment of Khilafat in Pakistan and then will do so across the world,'' he vowed.
CRACKDOWN Last July, President Pervez Musharraf ordered a major crackdown against clerics and organisations inciting sectarian violence, having already banned SSP, or ''Army of the Companions of the Prophet Mohammad'' in 2002.
Some of the crowd briefly chanted anti-Shi'ite slogans, until they were told to refrain by their leaders.
They also swore allegiance to their late leader, Maulana Azam Tariq, a fiery pro-Taliban cleric who was assassinated in Islamabad in 2003, and founder of their militant organisation, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who was killed in 1980s.
The SSP has often been blamed for violence against Shi'ites, planting bombs in mosques or attacking religious processions.
Thousands of people have been killed in tit-for-tat attacks by militants from the two Muslim sects over the past 20 years.
Most of the victims are Shi'ites, who account for about 15 percent of Pakistan's predominantly Sunni Muslim population of 150 million.
A prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric yesterday narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the southern city of Karachi after his car was hit by a remote-controlled bomb.
Authorities have launched several crackdowns on militant outfits since Pakistan joined a U S-led war on terrorism in the wake of the September 11 attacks on the United States, but critics say that the steps taken have been half-hearted and many groups have resurfaced under new names.
Like other groups, SSP remerged under the new name of Millat-e-Islamia Pakistan or Islamic Nation of Pakistan.
Founded in the 1980s, it wants Pakistan to be officially declared a Sunni Muslim state.
Reuters KD DB1140