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Pakistan Stresses Neutrality As Thousands Protest Killing Of Soleimani

Pakistani Shi'ite Muslims demonstrate over the U.S. air strike in Iraq that killed General Qasim Soleimani, in Islamabad, on January 3.
Pakistani Shi'ite Muslims demonstrate over the U.S. air strike in Iraq that killed General Qasim Soleimani, in Islamabad, on January 3.

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN -- Thousands of people rallied on January 5 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 January 3 killed 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 footage 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 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 with no reports of casualties.

Rally leaders in their speeches urged the government not to allow the United States 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 on January 5 that 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 with Pakistani military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and shared details of the deadly strike.

The conversation, however, sparked media speculation that Islamabad would side with Washington against Tehran if 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 peacemaker and would not join any campaign that threatens regional stability.

Separately, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said he spoke on January 5 with counterparts in several regional countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, to share Islamabad’s "deep concern" over 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 tensions.

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