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Pakistani militant rallies supporters, defying U.S. bounty

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LAHORE, Pakistan — Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, a Pakistani militant leader subject to a $10 million U.S. bounty, triumphantly rallied his supporters Friday and continued to dare authorities to put him on trial.

“I am ready to face any court in Pakistan and any international court where the United States wants to go,” Saeed said during his sermon at the mosque that serves as headquarters for his banned religious party, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (Party of Truth). He spoke four days after the State Department announced a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest or conviction on charges of masterminding terrorist attacks, notably a string of assaults in Mumbai in November 2008.

Although Pakistan tolerates Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the United States has labeled it a terrorist organization and a front for Lashkar-i-Taiba (Army of the Pious), which Saeed founded in the 1990s. U.S. and Indian officials say Lashkar-i-Taiba carried out the attacks in Mumbai that left 166 people dead, including six Americans.

Pakistani courts have twice found insufficient evidence to convict Saeed, despite U.S. and U.N. designations of him as an international terrorist. The country’s powerful military, which has close ties to Lashkar-i-Taiba, has for years brought pressure to bear on the civilian leadership to protect him.

The U.S. bounty offer, approved by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, has provided Saeed a platform for the past three days to taunt the United States. He has ridiculed the reward, saying that everyone in Pakistan knows where he is. “America can contact me whenever it wants,” he said Wednesday at a news conference.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani characterized the bounty as an “unfortunate” development that would damage efforts to normalize U.S.-Pakistani relations.

“Such negative messages will increase the trust deficit at a time when the parliament was engaged in framing new rules of engagement with the U.S.,” Gilani said. He referred to an ongoing effort by lawmakers to decide, among other things, whether the nation should reopen its borders to NATO supply convoys.

Access to those routes were suspended last November after errant U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at two posts on the Afghan border.

In his sermon Friday, Saeed also urged followers to oppose any Pakistani support for NATO forces in Afghanistan — an anti-American message that appears to be resonating more widely as politicians across the spectrum have lined up to denounce Monday’s bounty announcement as another sign of U.S. meddling in Pakistani affairs.

“Today we will throw an arrow toward the enemies of Pakistan and Islam, and today you will you see that this protest will reach America,” Saeed told about 1,000 worshipers packed into the Qadisia Mosque on a sweltering afternoon in Lahore, on Pakistan’s eastern border with India. “Jihad will continue until our mission of driving the Americans out of the region is complete,” he said.

For Saeed, it was a typical message but delivered in a new context. The former engineering and Arabic professor, who once fulminated on the political margins, has gained new stature, thanks to the nationalist sentiments whipped up by the U.S. reward offer.

Pakistan, stung by what it sees as another assault on its sovereignty by Washington and a clear U.S. tilt toward India, has called for proof of Saeed’s guilt.

The bounty announcement, analysts say, inadvertently enlarged radical Islamists’ role in shaping foreign policy by further galvanizing public sentiment against NATO.

Fourteen small, hard-line parties have coalesced behind an organization called the Pakistan Defense Council, which includes Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Although the parties have almost no representation in parliament, they have shown their power with demonstrations in major cities, including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

“The extremist organizations . . . are growing their influence, and there is no doubt about that,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, an expert on militancy.

“Their narrative has proven to be successful, which is now a popular narrative, as anti-Americanism is on the rise in the country,” he said. “And now they are successfully nudging the mainstream parties to follow their terms.”

Nasir Mahmood, a 36-year-old pharmacist and Saeed supporter, said he would help block NATO shipments, “even if I have to lay down my life.” Scores of fellow worshipers shouted approval as they left the prayer service.

Later, the faithful crammed into vans to attend a clamorous rally in the heart of the city. “Whoever is the friend of the U.S. is a traitor,” they chanted. “We will shed our blood for Hafiz Saaed with just one command.”

Special correspondents Mohammed Rizwan in Lahore and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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