Pakistan attacks reveal widening split between religious parties and militants

Islamabad, Pakistan - Two assassination attempts in so many days on the life of a key Islamist leader here appear to represent a strong message from militants: even sympathetic politicians aren't safe.

Maulana Fazl ur Rehman of the powerful, hard-line group Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) survived Thursday's suicide bombing at a rally in the northwestern town of Charsadda, but the attack left 12 dead and 29 injured. He also walked away from an attack on his convoy Wednesday.

Pakistan’s religious parties have been vocal in their opposition to the United States and to progressive domestic policies, such as reforming the blasphemy law, which critics say are used to target religious minorities. But that’s not always enough to shield them from attacks from more hardcore groups like the Pakistan Taliban, says retired Gen. Talat Masood, a security analyst.

Many have accused the Pakistan Taliban for the attacks, but no group has yet claimed responsibility.

While the back-to-back bombings demonstrate a gulf between Pakistan’s mainstream religious parties and more hard-line militants, who are inherently opposed to the political process, they may have also resulted from specific doubts about the sincerity of Rehman's promises to extremists that he's on their side, say experts.

“I think [militants] consider him to be playing a double game and think he’s not truly for them. While he says he supports them, they think he has no principles and no ideology per se and exploits both sides to his personal advantage,” says General Masood.

Speaking to Pakistan’s Geo Television after the attack, Rehman said: “I am fine, [the] blast damaged my jeep and some soldiers in my convoy are injured.” He had been due to address a public meeting in Charsadda. On Wednesday, his convoy was attacked while en route to a political rally in Swabi, some 30 miles north of Islamabad.

Rehman’s political base lies in the conservative Khyber Pakhtunkwa province in the northwest near Afghanistan, and there is often overlap between his party’s grassroots supporters and militant groups, says Badar Alam, editor of Pakistan’s Herald magazine and an expert on militancy.

According to Alam, the very fact that Rehman leads a political party whose six MPs were a part of the ruling coalition led by the center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) until last December may have angered his political base.

Nicknamed “Maulana Diesel” for the lucrative diesel contracts awarded to him during Benazir Bhutto’s government in the mid-1990s, Rehman has developed a reputation as a wily political operative able to reach across the aisle.

In a US embassy cable dated September 2007, released by whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks recently, former President Musharraf told a senior US diplomat that it would be “important to include Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F) leader Fazlur Rehman in the governing coalition,” in upcoming elections, describing him as “moderate and pliable” and able to split the religious parties.

In a cable dated November 2007, former US ambassador Anne Patterson reported that Rehman held a banquet in her honor and suggested that his party votes were “for sale if he was given support to be elected as prime minister.”

Interior Minister Rehman Malik has ordered security officials to launch an investigation and report within a week, according to government news agency APP.

Hafiz Aleem, as assistant to Rehman, told the Monitor, “We can't say who is being targeted right now, let’s wait until the results of the investigation come out.”