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Charity denies link to militant group

MURIDKE, Pakistan — The sprawling compound lies at the end of a rutted dirt road, past a cluster of shops where old men smoke water pipes and children chew raw sugar cane. Beyond the metal gate, clipped lawns stretch into the distance, edged by towering trees and dusty rosebushes.

There's a hospital, a whitewashed madrassa and a block of student dormitories, but on the eve of the Muslim holiday of Eid-ul-Adha, the students were on vacation and a lone patient occupied a reclining chair in the hospital, his mouth wide open while a dentist worked on his teeth.

Outside on the lawn, Abdullah Muntazir, a spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Islamic charity that owns the compound, was trying to convince a handful of journalists that his organization was not a militant group.

Specifically, he wanted to dispel any notion that Jamaat-ud-Dawa was just another name for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the jihadi group identified by Indian and U.S. officials as the architect of last month's deadly attacks in Mumbai. But events were conspiring to make Muntazir's job difficult. In recent days, the compound where he was standing had been mentioned by high-level Pakistani officials as a possible target of retaliatory Indian airstrikes.

"You can see anything. There is nothing to hide here," Muntazir said, waving to indicate the houses, schools and the concrete-walled reservoir where students sometimes swam on hot days.

This 75-acre compound 20 miles outside Lahore has emerged as a focal point in the tense exchange between India and Pakistan since the Nov. 26 attacks on luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish center in Mumbai that killed 171 people and injured more than 230. Last week, Pakistan had agreed to a 48-hour deadline set by India and the United States to arrest key suspects in the Mumbai assaults or risk a possible strike.

Now Muntazir, a bearded, fine-featured man who speaks soft, precise English, was working against the clock. "Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba were not the same at any point of time," he told the journalists.

The U.S. government disagrees. It designated Lashkar a foreign terrorist organization in 2001 and added Jamaat to the list in 2006, freezing its assets. Lashkar "renamed itself" Jamaat-ud-Dawa to avoid sanctions, according to the U.S. Treasury.

"Despite the name change, the same leaders that form the core of LT remain in charge of JUD," the Treasury Web site says. "While JUD claims to be a 'humanitarian' organization, it continues to voice its support for violence against civilians."

Indian officials say the Mumbai attacks were planned and carried out by fighters from Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) with help from Pakistan's powerful spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, known as the ISI.

Founded 20 years ago with Pakistani support to fight Indian rule in the disputed territory of Kashmir, Lashkar was banned by former President Pervez Musharraf in 2002 after India accused it and another Pakistani militant group of mounting a deadly attack on the Indian Parliament. But Lashkar's founder, a Lahore university professor named Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, resurfaced as the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Islamic relief organization whose reputation Muntazir was now trying to defend.

He denied that Jamaat-ud-Dawa was involved in the Mumbai attacks. Yet he acknowledged that his group had supported Lashkar until 2002 and would still support it, if not for the Pakistani ban.

"The freedom struggle of Kashmir, it's for a just cause, and every Pakistani supports it," Muntazir said. "Because we obey the law of the land, so we stopped our support (to Lashkar). But we think the government of Pakistan should support the jihad in Kashmir. And if it does not support, it should allow the organizations like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and others to support the mujahedeen in Kashmir."

He led the journalists down narrow gravel paths, past empty buildings. Before the Pakistani ban, the compound had been a training ground for Lashkar-e-Taiba. More recently, religious leaders have reportedly called for holy war at Lashkar conventions here. Jamaat-ud-Dawa belongs to the Ahle Hadith sect of Islam, a small, ultra-orthodox sect inspired by Saudi Wahhabism.

The reporters passed a mosque called Um-ul-Khurra, or Mother of Towns, another name for Mecca, and a girls' school with nearly 500 students. Another 1,500 boys attend primary and secondary school here, as well as a science academy that offers physics, chemistry, biology, botany and computer science — "anything you would get in a modern school in Pakistan," Muntazir said. Across the road, a few men lingered in the courtyard of the madrassa, which was ringed with barbed wire entwined with purple hibiscus. Muntazir did not take the journalists inside.

At Al-Aziz Hospital, Muntazir showed off the clean, tiled hallways and modern operating theaters. There was a dental technician, X-ray facilities, an outpatient department and a division specializing in eye surgery, mostly for cataract patients. Medical treatment for any ailment is available at a flat rate of about 25 cents per visit, said resident physician Abdul Rauf, and dental care costs about 50 cents. In this part of Pakistan, people live in brick and mud houses, growing wheat, sugar cane or potatoes. As many as 100 line up at the hospital every day.

"They are very poor and they are unable to go to Lahore," Rauf said. "The government has not yet provided a civilized facility."

Jamaat-ud-Dawa has gained popularity here for providing basic services, especially in areas the Pakistani government cannot reach. It runs 160 medical clinics, more than 100 modern schools and 50 madrassas, as well as an ambulance service in 66 Pakistani cities, Muntazir said. He estimated the organization's budget at between $640,000 and $760,000 a year.

Although Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba are believed to have extensive fundraising networks in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, Muntazir said that all donations come from Pakistanis and that Jamaat cannot receive money wired from outside the country. "If anybody gives money to his relative in Pakistan to give to Jamaat-ud-Dawa, I have no idea about that," he said.

The group is perhaps best known in Pakistan for its relief work in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake that killed more than 80,000 people in Kashmir and the North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. Musharraf praised Jamaat-ud-Dawa's rapid response to the disaster, but even then the group couldn't escape its association with militants.

A 2006 International Crisis Group report identified Jamaat-ud-Dawa as the "renamed" Lashkar-e-Taiba and noted that it and other banned jihadi groups operated freely after the earthquake, often in close coordination with the Pakistani military.

"We know these mountains like the backs of our hands after more than a decade of fighting Indian rule in occupied Kashmir, but now we are engaged in a new holy war by helping victims of the earthquake," a Jamaat-ud-Dawa aid worker told Crisis Group researchers.

When the tour of the compound ended, Muntazir invited the journalists to lunch. Bowls of chicken stew, spiced with fresh ginger, were laid out on an oilcloth on the floor, along with fresh bread, yogurt and bottles of mineral water.

Muntazir's cell phone rang; he spoke for a few minutes, then hung up. He returned to answering questions, but he seemed preoccupied. His phone rang again, and again, five times in all. He excused himself. He had been called to an urgent meeting in Lahore.

Later, the journalists would learn that just as they were finishing lunch, Pakistani security forces had raided a camp in Pakistani Kashmir that some said belonged to Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Among those arrested was Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakvhi, a Lashkar commander named by India as a key planner of the Mumbai attacks.

Vanessa Gezari is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is a former staff writer for the Times.

Charity denies link to militant group 12/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 8:34pm]
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