ISLAMABAD (AP) — On city streets in Pakistan, a curious sight has appeared in recent days: posters bearing the faces of the country's two most powerful generals that profess love for the military and its spying arm.
Lamp posts, street signs and cars carry the banners, which bear mottos like: "A traitor of Pakistan army is a traitor of the country" and "We love Pakistan army and ISI," referring to its Inter-Services Intelligence wing.
The mystery signs arrived in Pakistan as its powerful military faces off with the country's largest private television station over allegations that its forces were behind a shooting that seriously wounded one of its top anchors. But behind the chanting demonstrations and garish loyalty posters lies the deep challenge confronting Pakistan: Where does power lie in this country that's undergone three military coups since independence, with its army or its nascent civilian government?
The controversy started last Saturday when gunmen opened fire on Hamid Mir, an anchor for Geo News, wounding him six times. After the shooting, his journalist brother appeared on Geo and blamed the ISI for the shooting while the station showed a photo of its chief, Lt. Gen. Zaheerul Islam. The station repeatedly aired the accusations and blamed the ISI for the "assassination attempt" against Mir.
The Defense Ministry then petitioned government regulators to remove Geo from the air — a decision that's likely to come in early May. The station then reported that it's signal was blocked in areas of the country as small rallies supporting the military began. Last week, the posters began appearing, some with the ISI leader on them.
Their origin is a mystery. Some said they were from the people of Islamabad, the capital. Others mentioned a Pakistani religious figure. Some listed the All Traders Welfare Association, a little-known trade group in the capital, headed by a man named Furqan Murtaza.
When reached by The Associated Press, Murtaza denied that any government or military agency encouraged his campaign.
"This is an expression of public sentiment," he said.
Generally, people have to get permission before hanging posters and banners in the capital and pay a fee. An official from the Capital Development Authority, which manages Islamabad, said the agency did not receive any requests to hang the posters, though it's common for people to do it without permission. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.
The military did not respond to requests for comment. An ISI official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he wasn't authorized to discuss the agency publicly, said it was not responsible for the campaign.
The poster push comes as Pakistan, a country of 180 million that was carved out of India in 1947, last year saw its first civilian government finish a full five-year term and transfer power in democratic elections. Previously, military coups and other political turmoil prevented that. But even now, journalists face dangers reporting stories, the Taliban continue to be a threat and the military remains a powerful institution in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Rasul Baksh Rais, who heads the Islamabad-based Institute for Strategic Studies, said the posters reflect a larger sentiment in a society where many people still respect the military and feel Geo went too far in their criticism. He compared it to the same nationalist pride that sees images of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, who took power in a 1958 coup, or air force jets decorate the sides of cargo trucks in the country.
But on the streets, the posters seemed to do little to sway public opinion.
"I don't have time to read these banners and listen to radio and TV," said Ghulam Hasan, 46. "No common man has time to pay attention to these things. They are always worried about how to meet their expenses."
Hasan added: Those in charge "have no time to solve people's problems."
Associated Press writer Rebecca Santana in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.
Follow Munir Ahmed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/munirahmedAP .