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Lawmakers Seek Clarification on Pakistan's Role in Saudi-led Counterterror Group

FILE - In this photo released by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at a meeting of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 26, 2017.

Pakistani senators have again raised concerns about Pakistan's role in the Saudi-led counterterrorism coalition and have demanded that the government provide the rationale for being part of it.

The senators are seeking clarification amid concerns that Pakistan's involvement in what's known as the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC) could introduce to Pakistan the sectarian conflict and regional rivalry that exists between Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.

Parliament's upper house on Friday urged the government to reveal the terms of reference, or TOR, under which Pakistan agreed to participate and allowed its former army chief, General Raheel Sharif, to lead the Muslim military alliance.

Fighting for influence

Iran and Saudi Arabia have been fighting for influence in several countries in the region, including Iraq and Yemen, and Pakistani lawmakers are concerned that the competition could spread to Pakistan, which has a big Shiite minority among its more than 200 million population.

They also warn that the country's involvement could lead to domestic problems as the Shiite minority is against Pakistan picking sides in the Shiite-Sunni regional rivalry.

Farhatullah Babar, a prominent lawmaker who belongs to former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan Peoples Party, told VOA that over the past few months, the government has been asked several times to clarify Pakistan's role in the Muslim counterterrorism coalition and it has failed to provide a satisfactory response.

FILE - Pakistani Senator Farhatullah Babar talks to the Associated Press in Islamabad, Pakistan, Oct. 27, 2016.
FILE - Pakistani Senator Farhatullah Babar talks to the Associated Press in Islamabad, Pakistan, Oct. 27, 2016.

"Unfortunately, the parliament is kept in the dark and we do not know under what terms and conditions Pakistan has agreed to be a part of this coalition," Babar said.

"The question is: Who exactly is framing our foreign policy?" he added.

Sharif's role as the former chief of the country's powerful military and his subsequent appointment as the first chief of the Saudi-led military coalition have caused concerns that Pakistan's military might become involved in a regional sectarian conflict.

Pakistan's Foreign Office has insisted that the country's involvement in the coalition does not contradict its long-standing policy of neutrality in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Sensitive issue

Sartaj Aziz, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's adviser on foreign affairs, was summoned to the Senate in June, where he promised lawmakers that the terms of reference for Pakistan's role in the coalition would soon be shared with the country's legislative body.

"The government never shared it [TOR] with us nor provided any satisfactory answer to our queries," Babar said.

Babar has told local Pakistani media that lawmakers, because of the sensitivity of the issue, are hesitant to scrutinize the issue further.

Pakistan Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani was quoted by local media as saying that he could not challenge the country's powerful military on the issue.

"I will go missing ... if I give a ruling on this [military alliance]," Rabbani was quoted as saying by the country's Dawn newspaper.

FILE - Raheel Sharif, then the army chief of Pakistan, addresses a seminar in Gwadar, Pakistan, April 12, 2016.
FILE - Raheel Sharif, then the army chief of Pakistan, addresses a seminar in Gwadar, Pakistan, April 12, 2016.

The Saudi-led Muslim countries' military alliance was launched last month in Riyadh, where the defense ministers of the 41 member countries attended the inauguration ceremony.

"The meeting [in the Saudi capital] marks the official launch of the IMCTC and strengthens the cooperation and integration of member countries in the coalition," the official statement of the inaugural session read.

Sunni vs. Shiite

Critics of the alliance maintain that it unites dozens of Sunni Islamic countries that could be viewed as a force against Shiite majority states.

"The question here is: Will the Sunni Islam's majority Saudi-led military coalition take Iran's concerns and reservations into consideration? That is a big issue and cannot be dismissed," Babar said.

Others view Pakistan's role in the coalition as a positive.

Nasser Janjua, a retired military general, told Dawn in March that the country's involvement and Sharif's appointment was a positive development for the Muslim world.

"General Raheel Sharif will use his experiences and knowledge to remove internal misunderstandings among Muslim countries," Janjua said.

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    Madeeha Anwar

    Madeeha Anwar is a multimedia journalist with Voice of America's Extremism Watch Desk in Washington where she primarily focuses on extremism in the South Asia region.

    Follow Madeeha on Twitter at @MadeehaAnwar