ISLAMABAD — Pakistan was stung Tuesday by the U.S. State Department's announcement of a $10 million reward for the capture or conviction of the founder of a Pakistani militant group that allegedly carried out the November 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, India's largest city.
The size of the bounty for Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba organization, is on par with what the U.S. is offering for Mullah Mohammad Omar, the leader of Afghanistan's Taliban. U.S. officials also announced a $2 million reward for information leading to the location of Hafiz Abdul Rahman Makki, Saeed's deputy and brother-in-law.
To their consternation, Pakistani officials didn't learn of the U.S. decision until newspaper websites in India, Pakistan's archenemy, reported it early Tuesday. That prompted analysts in Islamabad to conclude that it was a pressure tactic by Washington aimed at forcing Pakistan to reopen NATO supply routes to Afghanistan that were suspended last fall after a friendly fire incident in which U.S. forces killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.
"The U.S. has upped the ante. It's as if they're saying: You blocked the NATO supplies, so we've done this," said Imtiaz Gul, the director of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an independent research center in Pakistan. "It's a very strong message."
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Pakistan has previously said it can't act against Saeed because the country's fiercely independent judiciary has cleared him of involvement in the Mumbai attacks. Saeed currently faces no criminal charges in Pakistan, and in recent months he's often appeared in public, denouncing the United States and calling for Islamabad to end counter-terrorism cooperation with Washington.
The State Department said in a news release that "Saeed and his organization continue to spread ideology advocating terrorism, as well as virulent rhetoric condemning the U.S., India, Israel and other perceived enemies."
In Washington, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the decision to name Saeed had been in the works for months and wasn't related to NATO supplies but rather was because he'd helped plan the four-day assault on Mumbai, in which 166 people were killed, including six American citizens.
"This is a case that's been going on for a long time," Nuland said. "This is with regard to justice being served on people who have killed Americans, so that there's no impunity for them anywhere in the world."
The United States first designated Saeed a terrorist in December 2001, and he was placed under United Nations sanctions shortly after the Mumbai attacks. He's loomed large in Pakistani politics since then, joining other cleric-politicians and veteran militants to launch the Defense of Pakistan council, which is widely thought to be a brainchild of the military's powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.
The council's profile has risen dramatically since the friendly fire incident in November on the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan demanded an unconditional apology from the White House. When it became clear in December that no apology was forthcoming, Pakistan's Parliament launched a review of relations with the United States.
The politicians have been under pressure from Saeed and his council colleagues, who've campaigned nationwide against resuming cooperation with the United States, which Nuland noted Tuesday.
"As you may know, one of these individuals has been appearing on television and has been quite brazen," she said. "So I think the sense has been over the last few months that this kind of a reward might hasten the judicial process, if you will."
Only the al Qaida chief, Ayman al Zawahiri, has a bigger price — $25 million — under the State Department's Rewards for Justice program.
Pakistani analysts made much of the fact that India received notice of the decision from the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, during talks in New Delhi on Monday. India and Pakistan are perennial rivals, and they've fought two wars since they gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
India's Foreign Ministry issued a statement late Monday thanking the U.S. for taking a "step to target" Saeed and Makki.
It was business as usual Tuesday for Saeed, however, who traveled by road from his home in the eastern city of Lahore to address a political rally at the town of Haripur — halfway between Islamabad and Abbottabad, where U.S. Navy SEALs found and killed Osama bin Laden last May.
Speaking privately, a close associate of Saeed's admitted to feeling "endangered and worried" about the U.S. decision. But publicly, Jamaat-ud-Dawwa — an arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba, headed by Saeed, which promotes the puritanical Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and also is involved in charitable and humanitarian work — called the U.S. decision "another attack on Islam and Muslims." Jamaat-ud-Dawwa
"The whole world knows Saeed and Makki are not hiding in mountains or caves. Nor are their political, charitable or religious activities across Pakistan a secret," Yahya Mujahid, a spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawwa, said in a news release.
Security analysts in Islamabad said Pakistan's civilian government would like to act against Saeed but had been prevented from doing so by the military, which feared a backlash from militant activists.
They said several thousand militants splintered and joined al Qaida after the Pakistani government ordered anti-India groups to disband in 2002, after a December 2001 attack on India's Parliament almost sparked all-out war.
"If you prosecute Saeed and company, those militant activists who haven't turned on the Pakistani state will do," said Mohammad Imran, an Islamabad-based analyst.
(Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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