ISLAMABAD - Pakistan's decision to deploy troops to Saudi Arabia has sparked domestic criticism the country is taking sides in the Yemeni conflict in violation of a parliamentary resolution, and it's a move some say likely will upset neighboring Iran.
The Pakistani military announced Thursday it was sending a "contingent" of troops "on a training and advice mission" to Saudi Arabia "in a continuation of ongoing … bilateral security cooperation."
The statement, however, explained the Pakistani "troops or those already there" will be stationed on the soil of Saudi Arabia.
Nearly 1,200 Pakistani troops are permanently stationed in Saudi Arabia as part of a training mission for more than 250,000 Saudi troops. The English daily DAWN quoted the Pakistan army spokesman as saying the size of the new contingent would be "less than a division," which usually consists of about 10,000 forces.
Riyadh and Islamabad have been close allies for decades. The Saudis have been pressing Pakistan for the troop deployment since the outbreak of the Yemen conflict in 2015.
But the national parliament that year unanimously adopted a resolution affirming Islamabad's strict "neutrality" in the conflict and called for the government to use diplomacy to end the crisis.
On Friday, Pakistani lawmakers criticized the government for bypassing that resolution and "making unilateral decisions to the determent" of the country.
Opposition Senator Farhatullah Babar initiated the debate in the upper house and warned of " grave consequences " for Pakistan.
The senator from the Pakistani Peoples Party alleged that recent statements by the foreign ministry were aimed at justifying the troop deployment to "actively engaging the Yemenis in the conflict on the side of the Saudis."
The debate prompted Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani to summon the foreign minister on Monday for a clarification and to explain reasons for sending troops to Saudi Arabia.
Opposition members in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, also slammed the decision and sought clarifications to make sure the troop deployment in Saudi Arabia would not "contravene" Pakistan's neutrality outlined in the parliamentary resolution.
"Mr. Speaker, as you know, Saudis themselves are embroiled in the war [against the Shiite Houthi rebels] and it is not reaching any conclusion," observed Shireen Mazari of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party.
She demanded the government explain terms and conditions of the security pact with Saudis and the type of missions Pakistani troops will undertake there.
"How and on what grounds the government took the decision, or was this decision not taken by the government as such but it was just part of a routine that the military decided to send more troops?" Mazari asked.
The lawmaker was indirectly referring to widespread perception in Pakistan that the powerful military, and not the civilian government, makes key foreign policy decisions when it comes to dealing with countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United States, Afghanistan and rival India.
Ties to Iran
Pakistan has decided to deploy troops at a time when Iran-backed Houthis have increased missile attacks against Saudi targets, though the country's air defense system intercepted and destroyed most of the rockets and prevented any damage.
While Sunni-dominated Pakistan has deep economic, religious and military ties to Saudi Arabia, it shares a porous border with Iran, stretching 900 kilometers. A fifth of its more than 200 million residents are Shiite Muslims who maintain close cultural and religious ties with Iran.
Critics warn that Islamabad's military engagement could upset the country's minority Shiite community and undermine bilateral relations with Tehran.
Pakistani officials in background interviews, however, dismissed those concerns and told VOA that Iran "has been taken into confidence" with regard to sending troops to Saudi Arabia. They cited a recent visit to Tehran by Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, where he discussed the matter with the Iranian leadership.
Political commentator and television talk show host, Talat Hussain, questioned the army's statement that Pakistani troops will not be employed outside Saudi Arabia.
"It fools no one to say [troops] won't leave Kingdom boundaries. Saudi-Iran are fighting. Iran-Israel are fighting. In the middle of it are now are our contingents. This will have long-term implications," Hussain wrote on his Twitter account.