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Originally published Sunday, July 8, 2012 at 1:06 AM

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Islamists protest NATO supply line in Pakistan

Prominent hardline Islamists led thousands of people in a protest Sunday against Pakistan's decision to allow the U.S. and other NATO countries to resume shipping troop supplies through the country to Afghanistan.

Associated Press

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LAHORE, Pakistan —

Prominent hardline Islamists led thousands of people in a protest Sunday against Pakistan's decision to allow the U.S. and other NATO countries to resume shipping troop supplies through the country to Afghanistan.

The demonstration in the eastern city of Lahore was organized by the Difah-e-Pakistan Council, or Defense of Pakistan, a group of politicians and religious leaders who have been the most vocal opponents of the supply line.

Pakistan closed the route in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops. After months of negotiations, Islamabad finally agreed to reopen the route last week after the U.S. apologized for the deaths.

One of the reasons Pakistan waited so long to resolve the conflict is that the government was worried about domestic backlash in a country where anti-American sentiment is rampant despite billions of dollars in U.S. aid over the last decade.

The protest started Sunday in the center of Lahore, where about 3,000 people assembled with dozens of buses, cars and motorbikes. They plan to link up with about 20,000 more supporters waiting on the city's edge and drive to the capital, Islamabad, in a so-called "long march" against the supply line. They expect to reach Islamabad Sunday afternoon.

The leaders of Difah-e-Pakistan stood in the back of a truck at the head of the convoy. They included Maulana Samiul Haq, known as the father of the Taliban; Hafiz Saeed, founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group; and Hamid Gul, a retired Pakistani intelligence chief with a long history of militant support. Supporters showered them with rose petals as they passed.

Many demonstrators rode on the tops of buses, waving party flags and shouting slogans against the U.S. and NATO. "One solution for America, jihad, jihad!" they shouted.

The crowd was dominated by members of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely believed to be a front group for Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is blamed for the attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 that killed more than 160 people. Jamaat-ud-Dawa is led by the group's founder, Saeed.

"We want to show the rulers that people of Pakistan are against its decision, and we want to show the world that the rulers' decision is not a reflection of the people's will," said Jamaat-ud-Dawa spokesman Yahya Mujahid.

The U.S. announced a $10 million bounty earlier this year for information leading to the arrest or conviction of Saeed, but he operates freely in the country. Pakistan says it doesn't have enough evidence to arrest Saeed, but many suspect the government is reluctant to move against him and other militant leaders because they have longstanding ties with the Pakistani military and intelligence service.

Difah-e-Pakistan is widely believed to be supported by the Pakistani army as a way to put pressure on the U.S. Its leaders have vowed to stop NATO trucks from making the journey from the southern port city of Karachi to the Afghan border. But if the group has army backing, it could moderate its actions.

Although the army was outraged by the U.S. attack on its troops, which Washington said was an accident, it was eager to repair the relationship to free up more than $1 billion in military aid that had been frozen for the past year.

The U.S. waited so long to apologize in part because the Obama administration was worried such a move would expose it to criticism from Republicans in a presidential election year. Many U.S. officials and lawmakers harbor deep suspicions of Pakistan, citing the country's alleged support for militants fighting U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan.

While the supply line through Pakistan was closed, the U.S. was forced to rely on a longer, more costly route that runs into Afghanistan through Central Asia. The route cost the U.S. an extra $100 million per month.

The U.S. also wanted to resolve the conflict because it needs Pakistan's help to strike a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan so that American troops can withdraw without the country descending into further chaos. Pakistan is seen as key to an agreement because of its strong historical ties with the Taliban and its allies.

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Abbot reported from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Zarar Khan contributed to this report from Islamabad.

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