Province obliging militants

JHANG, Pakistan — Authorities in Pakistan's biggest and richest province are tolerating — if not promoting — some of the country's most violent Islamic militant groups.

Leaders in Punjab province have flouted repeated calls from the U.S. for Pakistan to crackdown on militant groups such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which claimed responsibility for a failed car bombing in New York City last week. A group based in Punjab province, Jaish-e-Mohammed, also has been implicated as having possible links to one of the people detained in Pakistan in connection with the bombing attempt.

Yet a senior minister in Punjab has campaigned publicly with members of an extremist group that calls for Shiite Muslims to be killed. And the head of the Punjab government, Shahbaz Sharif, asked militants not to attack his province because he was not following the dictates of the United States to fight them.

"It makes the Punjab a de facto sanctuary for the militants and extremists that the Pakistan army is fighting in the frontier and in the tribal areas," said Aida Hussain, a former ambassador to the United States and prominent Shiite leader.

Critics believe the policy of tolerance is a shortsighted bid by Sharif and his brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for political support in the predominantly Sunni province, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of Pakistan's 175 million people and much of the country's wealth.

Punjabi militants have won over fellow followers of the Deobandi sect of Islam with their radical religious interpretations and outspoken assaults on minority Shiites. This translates into votes that leaders of radical groups can bring to local politicians on the right and left.

"It's all about political expediency rather than outright support for these groups," said Moeed Yusuf of the United States Institute of Peace.

In the central Punjab town of Jhang, the outlawed Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, or Guardians of the Friends of the Prophet, has been emboldened by conciliatory signals from local authorities. After being courted for votes last March, the group ripped off yellow government seals and reopened its offices.

Just a few miles from the Punjab provincial capital of Lahore is the headquarters of Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is banned in Pakistan, India, the United States and other countries but is now under provincial government protection. India blames Lashkar-e-Taiba for the deadly 2008 attacks in Mumbai.