Pakistan's release of Islamic militants rattles India

Pakistan says three men had been arrested in a plot to kill US diplomats.

Pakistan is in the middle of a high-stakes juggling act.

On Saturday, the government released a top Islamist leader whose organization has been linked to a series of terrorist acts. Sunday, officials announced the arrest of three men involved in a plot to kill US diplomats.

This seeming contradiction underscores the difficulty facing Pakistan as it supports both the US in its war against terrorism and Islamists in the struggle for Kashmir's independence.

Maulana Masood Azhar, head of the terrorist organization Jaish-e Muhammad (Army of Muhammad), was released from house arrest by the Lahore High Court on Saturday. In a statement, the court said that the Pakistani government had not provided sufficient evidence to detain the Islamic cleric any further.

The freeing of Mr. Azhar - whose organization is blamed for a string of attacks in the Indian state of Kashmir and on India's Parliament last December, and is linked closely with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network - follows the similar release of other militant leaders over the past month. Some experts worry that Pakistan's support for America's antiterrorism war is waning.

"There is US concern over this, definitely," says Dennis Kux, a former US diplomat to Pakistan and now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "Here we're partners in the war against terrorism and they're letting all the terrorists out. Why they do it, I assume, is a combination of public pressure, but also their own policy goals. If you are fighting a proxy war against India, you need proxies to fight it, and that's who these people are."

Once called "an indispensable ally" in America's fight against Islamist terrorists, Pakistan has undergone substantial changes over the past year. The public mood, from the posh salons of Lahore to the mud-walled compounds of Pakistan's wild northwest frontier, has turned sharply against American policy, which they see as an attack on Muslims, not on terrorism. Islamist parties performed spectacularly well in the Oct. 10 elections, jumping from just two seats in previous elections to 57 seats in the 342-seat National assembly.

Balancing public opinion and its commitments to the US government could provide the first test of Pakistan's new government. Newly elected Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali says that Pakistani support for US antiterrorism efforts would continue, even on Pakistani soil. But newly elected Islamist leaders of key border provinces vowed to halt future cooperation with the US.

Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri told reporters on Friday that he assured Secretary of State Colin Powell in a phone call that Pakistan "would fulfill all its commitments to the international community in the fight against terrorism."

Everything comes down to definition. Pakistan banned Azhar's group after Jaish and another militant group, Lashkar-e Tayyaba, were blamed for an attack on India's Parliament building that left 14 people dead. Some Pakistani police have also linked Jaish to the Jan. 23 kidnap-murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

But while banning Jaish and a handful of other groups, Pakistan continued to voice its "moral support" for Islamic "freedom fighters" in the 13-year insurgency in India's Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Azhar is the third of several top Islamic militants freed over the past month. Hafez Saeed, the former head of Lashkar-e Tayyaba, was released in November for lack of evidence, and Azam Tariq, head of the banned violent sectarian group, Sipah-e Sahaba, was released after being elected to the National Assembly.

US officials have remained silent on the release of Islamic militants, but have pointed out that Pakistani support has been crucial in capturing top Al Qaeda members, including top bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah.

Just Sunday, officials announced the arrest of three men and the seizure of a Volkswagen filled with 22 pounds of explosives. The men, who were arrested Friday and Saturday in Karachi, allegedly planned to drive the vehicle into the car of a US diplomat. One of the suspects was linked to a suicide bombing at a Karachi hotel in May.

Indian officials have been critical about the release of militants. "This is not surprising, since it is well known that it is the Pakistani state and its agencies which have been involved in the building up of the terrorist structure, such as the Jaish-e Muhammad and the Lashkar-e Tayyaba," said Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Navtej Sarna.

In Northwest Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan and which has seen the majority of joint US-Pakistani raids in search of some 5,000 estimated Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters still on the loose, public support for hard-line Islamic groups has increased.

In the election campaign, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of the Jamaat-e Islami and a partner in a coalition of Islamist parties that won a majority in Northwest Frontier Province vowed to remove any "foreign presence" from Pakistani soil.

Asked by reporters if he supported the war on terrorism, he replied: "War against terrorism, yes." Referring to continued US house-to-house searches in his province, he added: "American terrorism, no."

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