* Islamists quick to establish presence in disaster zone
* Win thanks as frustration with government grows
* Deny any political agenda
(For a wrapup on the Pakistan floods, click [nSGE67803O])
By Kamran Haider and Robert Birsel
ISA KHEL, Pakistan, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Pakistani Islamists have been quick to step in to help after this month’s devastating floods, winning hearts and minds as frustration with the U.S.-backed government grows.
The worst floods in 80 years have killed more than 1,600 people and left two million homeless along a broad swathe of the Indus river basin, from the north of the country to the south.
The army was quick to respond with rescue efforts, saving many lives as the torrent struck. The government, overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster, has been blasted as ineffective.
But as the authorities and international aid agencies marshal supplies and staff, it is often nimble Islamist charity workers who are first to arrive to help people pick up their lives as the worst of the surge begins to ebb.
They may not bring huge resources to bear but they establish a presence, with at least a canvas awning beside a road, with a banner appealing for donations and a table covered with bottles and jars of basic medicine.
“They were the first to come with tractors and vans to evacuate our people,” said Shafaatullah Khan who lives in a village near the Indus in Punjab province. “If they hadn’t been many people would have died. They worked day and night to get people out and provide cooked food and water.”
Nearby, workers of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) Islamist charity hovered around four huge pots, preparing food over a smoky fire while four women clad in burqas sat at a charity medical post.
The JuD is the charity arm of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group, which has for years been battling Indian forces in the disputed Muslim-majority region of Kashmir.
The LeT was behind a bloody attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 shortly after which the JuD was put on a U.N. blacklist for links to terrorism.
But such connections mean nothing to most Pakistanis.
“Everyone has a good impression of them,” land owner Mohammad Ali Khan said of the Islamists.
“They do their part,” Khan said in the village of Isa Khel, as diesel pumps clattered nearby, trying to suck water out of a row of shops over a muddy road and into water-logged fields.
This is not the first time the Islamists have mounted a high-profile response to a natural disaster in Pakistan.
In 2005, they established a reputation as a tireless relief group by helping many thousands of survivors after an earthquake struck the north of the country, killing 73,000 people. They have also helped people displaced by fighting against militants.
Many flood victims criticise the authorities for what they see as their failure to bring help quickly.
The support the Islamists gain from their relief work could further undermine confidence in a government already under suspicion for its alliance with the United States in the global campaign against militancy.
Many Pakistanis are deeply suspicious of the United States, largely because of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which are seen as attacks on Islam.
But the JuD dismisses any suggestion it is trying to win over the population to the cause of radical Islam.
“We don’t have any political agenda,” said JuD spokesman, Yahya Mujahid, who declined to comment on links to LeT.
A squat, burly man with a thick black beard flowing half-way down his chest, Mujahid said his group would contest elections if it wanted to get involved in politics.
“Our work is totally humanitarian,” he said, adding that it helped everyone, regardless of religion.
Another JuD official said a government crackdown on the group’s finances had created problems but Mujahid said hostility towards his group bolstered its standing in the eyes of many: “The propaganda against us actually works in our favour.”
Villagers in the saturated flood plains along the Indus are simply thankful for whatever help they get.
“For us they’re angels,” retired policeman Gul Mohammad Khan said of the Islamist relief workers.
“We don’t care who they are or what their agenda is. We were in crisis and they were the first to help. That’s it.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy