Tens of thousands of Pakistanis have held a demonstration in the eastern city of Lahore to denounce American drone attacks in the northwestern regions of the country.
Pakistan’s most popular politician Imran Khan criticized President Asif Ali Zardari’s government and its alliance with the U.S. before more than 100,000 flag-waving supporters Sunday, The Associated Press reported.
Khan, 58, entered politics 15 years ago when he founded Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or the Movement for Justice Party, but up to now he has struggled to translate his fame into votes. The massive demonstration in Lahore indicated his message may have found new resonance at a time when Pakistanis are fed up with the country’s chronic insecurity, economic malaise, and extremism as well as terrorism mostly caused by Pakistan’s alliance with the United States in its ‘war on terrorism’.
Khan’s bold stance on the United States’ war on terror, which he calls a war of terror, his struggle for the rule of law, justice, equality, and the eradication of corruption, and his insistence that Pakistan must finally change have endeared him to the Pakistani people.
A poll conducted by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in June found Khan, the captain of Pakistan’s 1992 world champion cricket team, to be the most popular political figure in the country.
«I have come here to register my hatred against this corrupt system,» said 29-year-old Nadeem Iqbal, who attended the demonstration.
Khan’s rising popularity could be a concern for the U.S., given his harsh criticism of the Pakistani government’s overt and covert cooperation with Washington.
He has been especially critical of U.S. assassination drone strikes targeting civilians in Pakistan’s rugged tribal region along the Afghan border. The latest drone strike killed six people on Sunday.
Khan has argued that Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S. is the main reason Pakistan is facing a Taliban insurgency in the Pashtun belt.
«Our leaders owned this war on terror for the sake of dollars,» Khan told the crowd assembled around the country’s most important national monument, the Minar-e-Pakistan. «Let me curse you. You sold out the blood of innocent people.»
Pakistan’s state news agency, The Associated Press of Pakistan, estimated the crowd was over 100,000 people.
Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani political analyst, said the demonstration was significant because Khan’s party has not been able to attract such large crowds in the past.
It’s also unclear exactly what Khan would do if he did win significant political power in next elections, which will be held in 2013. He has been relentless in criticizing the government for corruption and for its failure to address the many serious problems facing the country.
In a March 2009 interview with the Tehran Times, commenting on Pakistan’s alliance with the U.S., Khan said, “The main reason is that the Americans first had a puppet in the shape of General Musharraf… He became really a slave of the Americans, a total puppet, and allowed not just the drone attacks but the handing over of Pakistanis to the Americans, without due process of law, who were sent to Guantanamo.
“Then sending Pakistan’s army against its own people, this was the biggest travesty. It’s unheard of, it’s unprecedented that your own army kills your own people and gets a salary, a monthly salary from a foreign country. This is not known in human history. So, this is what General Musharraf did, and unfortunately, Asif Zardari has become even more of a puppet, an American puppet, simply because he has had massive corruption cases against him.”
He added, “But there’s deep resentment among the people of Pakistan. And it’s only a matter of time until there will be a reaction against it.”