Western powers want action against terrorist Hafiz Saeed and his groups. Photo: Reuters / Mohsin Raza

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Hafiz Saeed – the internationally recognized terrorist and chief of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba – says he will contest Pakistan’s next election to directly challenge former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Saeed, head of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its offshoot Jamaat-ud-Dawa, announced that he will run under the Milli Muslim League banner and stand in Nawaz’s former stronghold.

The Milli Muslim League office on Lahore’s Mohini Road comes under the NA-120 constituency, which the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has dominated since the 1980s. Sharif, the recently ousted PM, contested the 2013 election in that seat.

Sharif’s wife Kulsoom Nawaz won the by-election in NA-120 in September, but it was the Hafiz Sayeed-backed Sheikh Yaqoob who made headlines after bagging 5,822 votes.

“I created quite a storm didn’t I?” Yaqoob said while speaking to Asia Times. “And now a similar uproar has been created by the office that we’ve opened in NA-120.”

Yaqoob said the party building in Lahore had been gifted to him by a friend and wasn’t officially MML property yet – before revealing that the office would eventually be used by Hafiz Saeed to “launch his assault”.

His goal? Retaliate strongly against the US

But Saeed has a new task at hand, party insiders said. US President Donald Trump’s tweet on New Year’s Day condemning Pakistan as a ‘‘safe haven’’ for terrorists has not gone unnoticed. Saeed’s supporters have vowed to “strongly retaliate”.

The Jamaat-ud-Dawa leaders held a meeting with Hafiz Saeed following the US President’s shot across the bow, insiders told Asia Times. “Trump’s tweet proves that not only is the US now speaking India’s language, it is the PML-N government that is also doing the same,” JuD spokesperson Nadeem Awan said. “If the government does take action against us, we will go to the court, where we will get justice as usual.”

Ominously, Milli Muslim League Finance Secretary Ehsan Ullah says JuD plans to ‘‘give a befitting response to the US for insulting Pakistan.”

“If there is one person that can defend Pakistan it is Hafiz Saeed,” he said. “That is why true patriots in Pakistan always defend him.”

‘True patriots’ is usually a reference to Pakistan’s powerful military, which is reported to be backing Saeed. Multiple military insiders have confirmed that the MML’s move to “mainstream” is an Army-led project to allow former jihadists to enter politics.

A senior military official told Asia Times: “It is a combination of keeping control over important national matters like security, defense and foreign policy, but also giving these former militant groups that have served the state a route into the mainstream where their energies can be utilized.”

Another retired military official said: “Hafiz Saeed symbolizes Pakistan’s decades-old Kashmir policy, and Pakistan taking action against him would mean saying that that the policy was wrong.”

Ploy to weaken Sharif, despite cloud over MML

However, the JuD and Hafiz Saeed will have to cross a major hurdle if they really want to join electoral politics. The Election Commission of Pakistan is yet to register the Milli Muslim League as a political party.

“The Interior Ministry has sent us a letter that says that the Milli Muslim League is linked to the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and its offshoot Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and has been placed under restriction. Hence, it is opposing the party’s registration,” an election official told Asia Times.

But, for now, Saeed is all set to storm Sharif’s personal stronghold. Political observers say the move is a ploy by the Pakistan Army to weaken Sharif further.

“On December 24, Hafiz Saeed and I discussed the upcoming strategy in detail. We are confident that we can uproot the Sharif family from NA-120, Lahore, Punjab and then all of Pakistan,” Yaqoob said. He claimed that Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa had done more for the constituency and the city than the ruling party.

Saeed’s aides revealed that while he wants to create “a proper Islamic state” in Pakistan that would “honestly” fight for the “liberation of Kashmir’’, his motive was partly a personal vendetta. Saeed’s future was reportedly discussed by Pakistan’s civil and military leaders in a national security meeting in October 2016, details of which were revealed by a leading daily paper, known since as the “Dawn Leaks“.

“After benefiting from Hafiz Saeed’s support for years they backtracked and started taking orders from India,” JuD spokesman Nadeem Awan alleged. “India’s biggest demand was taking action against Hafiz Saeed, which is why the Sharif family put him under house arrest for 10 months. But now the (Lahore) High Court has declared him as innocent,” he said.

Awan maintains that while there is a personal element to Saeed’s fight against the Sharifs, ousting the PML-N from power ‘‘is the most patriotic thing that anyone can struggle for’’.

“We are looking for patriotic allies and would welcome anyone on board. But as can be seen in Lahore, with all parties allying against the PML-N, there are few fights more patriotic than striving for the Sharif family’s ouster,” the JuD spokesman said. “We need a government that acts in Pakistan’s best interests – not India’s.”

So, Pakistan’s fragile political scene seems to be facing an ominous crossroad.

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