|Rallies also took place in the western city of Peshawar, with protesters criticising the US and NATO [AFP]|
Tens of thousands of Pakistani Islamists have staged protests in which they expressed support for the military and condemned the United States following a cross-border NATO attack that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
About 30,000 demonstrators in Sunday’s protest in Lahore said they backed the military, which has reasserted itself after the November 26 attack and in the wake of a controversial memo that has weakened the civilian government, the Reuters news agency reported.
Similar protests took place in the western city of Peshawar, where leaders of the Jammat-e-Islami criticised the Pakistani government for its handling of the country’s affairs and NATO interventions in Pakistan.
Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder in Peshawar quoted organisers of the rally as saying: “This wave of humanity should be able to convince the president that the people are unstoppable.”
Among speakers at the Lahore protest was Hafiz Saeed, a fiercely anti-American cleric suspected of links to the group blamed for the 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai that killed 166 people.
“All agreements [with the US] should be terminated,” Saeed, who is also the head of the group that organised the protest, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, told the crowd. “We say all agreements terminated the day the attack happened.”
The demonstration was also addressed by Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, known as the father of the Afghan Taliban, who are fighting US-led NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan.
The protesters’ support for the army comes months after the military was humiliated by the unilateral US special forces’ raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad in May.
The attack sparked unprecedented public criticism of the military.
Analysts say support for the army could pile pressure on civilian leaders, especially deeply unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari, whose weak leadership has led to speculation that the army could stage a coup and seize power.
A memo allegedly crafted by Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States accused the military of plotting a coup.
No evidence has emerged that the military was behind a coup and the Pentagon dismissed the memo as not credible.
In an apparent reference to what has become known as “memogate”, cleric Tahir Ashrafi said: “All Islamist organisations stand with the Pakistan army. We will stand together and defeat any conspiracies against Pakistan and the Pakistan army.”
Businessman Mansoor Ijaz, writing in a column in the Financial Times on October 10, said a senior Pakistani diplomat had asked that a memo be delivered to the Pentagon with a plea for US help to stave off a coup in the days after the bin Laden raid.
Ijaz later identified the diplomat as Husain Haqqani, the then Pakistani ambassador to Washington. But Haqqani denied involvement in the memo, though he resigned over the controversy.
General Ashfaq Kayani, the head of the army, has called for an investigation into the memo. On Monday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court is due to start hearings into a petition demanding an inquiry into who was behind it.
Tension between Pakistan’s civilian government and military have bedevilled the nuclear-armed South Asian country for almost its entire existence, with the military ruling the country for more than half of its 64-year history after a series of coups.
Haqqani’s resignation was seen by many analysts as further weakening the civilian government, which is already beset by allegations of corruption and incompetence.
The military, which determines security and foreign policy, dismisses any suggestion that it might stage a coup but analysts say military intervention could not be ruled out in the event of chaos.