Pakistan Stress Neutrality, Big Rally Protests Killing of Soleimani

Thousands of people rallied Sunday in Pakistan’s largest city of Karachi and clashed with police while trying to force their way toward the tightly guarded American consulate to denounce the killing of Iranian commander Qasim Soleimani.

An American airstrike on Friday eliminated Soleimani in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, dangerously escalating Tehran’s tensions with Washington. Iran has vowed to avenge the death of its general.

Pakistani televisions aired footages of Sunday’s rally of mostly Shi’ite Muslims, including women and children, chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”. They carried images of Soleimani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader.

Authorities in Karachi deployed additional police forces and blocked the road leading to the U.S. consulate, effectively preventing protesters from moving beyond the barricades. The rally dispersed later in the evening and there were no reports of casualties.

Rally leaders in their speeches urged the government not to allow the U.S. to use Pakistani soil against Iran. Scores of protesters also gathered in the national capital of Islamabad to condemn the U.S. strike before dispersing peacefully.

Pakistan Not To Take Sides

Pakistan clarified Sunday it would not take sides in the U.S.-Iran tensions over Soleimani’s killing.

The statement came two days after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke to Pakistani military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and shared details of the deadly strike.

The conversation, however, sparked media speculation Islamabad would side with Washington against Tehran if the tensions escalated into a wider conflict.

Pakistani army spokesman Major-General Asif Ghafoor rejected the reports as “propaganda”, saying his country would play the role of a peacemaker and would not join any campaign that would threaten regional stability.

Separately, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said he spoke Sunday to counterparts in several regional countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran to share Islamabad’s “deep concern” over the tensions in the Middle East.

“The foreign minister also reaffirmed that Pakistan would neither let its soil be used against any other state nor become part of any regional conflict,” an official statement quoted Qureshi as saying. He stressed the need for avoiding conflict and de-escalating the tensions.

Sunni-dominated Pakistan shares a more than 900 kilometer border with Shi’ite Iran. Both the neighbours maintain close political, economic and cultural ties as pro-Iran Shi’ites form an estimated 20% of Pakistan’s more than 200 million population.