KARACHI: Bound together by hatred of the United States and support for insurgents fighting in Afghanistan, a revived coalition of supposedly banned Islamist extremists and rightwing political parties is drawing large crowds across Pakistan.
The emergence of the "Defend Pakistan Council" movement has raised suspicions that the group has approval from elements in the powerful military and security establishment, aiming to bolster public support for a hardline position.
The group's rise comes as the military is trying to assert its position in renegotiating its troubled relationship with the United States and as Pakistan prepares for elections likely to take place later this year.
Some of the leading lights in the Defend Pakistan Council have traditionally been seen as close to the security establishment, which has a long history of propping up radicals to defend its domestic interests or fight in India and Afghanistan.
On Sunday, the group's bandwagon rolled into Karachi, the country's commercial heart.
Between 20,000 and 30,000 men gathered close to a monument to Pakistan's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whose vision of a liberal, secular Pakistan is often contrasted to the rise of hardline, often violent groups in the country.
The star of the gathering was Hafiz Saeed, the head of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a front group for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group accused by India and the West of sending militants to Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 in attacks on a hotel and other sites.
"We demand Pakistani rulers quit the alliance with America," said Saeed, who was placed under house arrest after the Mumbai attacks but has slowly re-emerged in public, without a response from authorities. "There can be no compromise on the freedom and sovereignty of the country."
Members of Dawa patrolled the rally, some armed with automatic weapons, others on horseback.
Also represented on stage and in the crowd were Sipah-e-Sahaba.
A large banner that hung over the stage read "Wake up, countrymen, break the shackles of American slavery."
That anti-American message has been amplified by the Pakistani army since U.S. airstrikes along the Afghan border in late November killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani army accused the U.S. of deliberately targeting the outposts, rejecting American assertions it was mistake.
Saeed and other speakers threatened civil disobedience if Pakistan reopens it. Their stance could hamper American hopes that Islamabad will quietly reopen the route in the coming weeks.
"We vow that the NATO supply will never be restored," he said.
The alliance groups many of the same parties and clerics that banded together after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, capitalizing on anti-American sentiment. It formed a political alliance that won 50 seats in elections that took place in 2002.
The current government, which is broadly pro-American and doesn't espouse political Islam, is under pressure from the courts and opposition parties. Elections are now seen as likely later this year, and the revival of the "Defend Pakistan" group appears to be a push by politicians grouped within it to win votes among the legions of Pakistanis who subscribe to Islamist views.
The group has organized large rallies in several Pakistan cities; next week it plans a gathering in the capital, Islamabad.
Many of the speakers in Karachi rallied the crowds with warnings that Pakistan was under threat, and Islam its only defense.
"Do you swear to fight back with Islamic spirit, honor and dignity if anyone, whether American, NATO, Israel or India attack Pakistan?" asked Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, head of a hardline school that has sent thousands of people to fight in Afghanistan over the last 10 years.
Speaker after speaker also touted the army line on India, saying the neighboring country represents an existential threat to Pakistan.
"The security establishment of this country desires that ultra-radical parties should be brought into politics so that their doctrine against India, America or Israel could be infused to the masses," said Tauseef Ahmed, the head of the Mass Communication department at the Federal Urdu University.
Also at the Karachi rally was Hamid Gul, a former general who headed the country's spy agency in the late 1980s when Pakistan and the U.S. were supporting militants in their fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
He has since become a leading voice in the media against America and in support of the Taliban. Documents released by the whistleblower site Wikileaks alleged he retained ties to the insurgency there, a charge he has denied.
Ejaz Haider, a security analyst, said the security establishment should be "checked for serious dementia" if it was using the council for its own purposes.
"Far from this council defending Pakistan, Pakistan needs to be defended in right earnest from this cast of characters," he wrote in an editorial in the Express Tribune newspaper. AGENCIES