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Pakistan: Sectarian Tensions High In Karachi After Bombing Of Shi'a Mosque

Tensions are running high between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims in Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi following yesterday's apparent suicide-bomb attack on a Shi'a mosque, which killed 19 people. Pakistani security forces are guarding mosques and bracing for more violence as relatives of those killed bury the victims. RFE/RL takes a closer look at the tensions between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims in Pakistan.

Prague, 1 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Some 15,000 security officers are deployed across Pakistan's southern port city of Karachi today following the latest sectarian violence there -- an apparent suicide bomb attack on a Shi'a mosque during evening prayers yesterday that killed 19 people. Three others died in clashes with police during overnight riots that were sparked by the bombing of Karachi's Ali Raza Imam Bargah mosque.

Authorities in Pakistan say they had feared fresh inter-Muslim sectarian violence in Karachi after gunmen on 30 May shot dead Nazamuddin Shamzai, a radical Sunni cleric who had repeatedly called for a holy war against the United States. The mosque targeted by last night's bombing was less than 2 kilometers from the Sunni seminary where Shamzai was killed.

Yesterday's bombing was the second deadly attack on a Shi'a mosque in Karachi this month. On 7 May, a bomb killed 23 worshippers and wounded 125 at the Haideri Mosque in the city. That attack was blamed on Sunni extremists.

More than 4,000 people are thought to have been killed as a result of Shi'a-Sunni violence in Pakistan since the 1980s.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad appealed today for calm from both Sunnis and Shi'a across the country. "Whoever is involved in this, it is a very unfortunate incident, and we condemn it," he said. "This is injustice to humanity, to Islam, to the government. No religion allows permission to destroy places of worship."

Nevertheless, clashes were reported today in Karachi between police and crowds of Shi'a who had gathered for the funerals of the victims of last night's bombing. Riot police fired tear gas to drive back crowds numbering in the thousands. Some angry Shi'a in the crowd pelted police vehicles with stones. There are no immediate reports of serious injuries.

The police chief of Pakistan's southern Sindh Province, Kamal Shah, today described the surge of violence as "a war between law-enforcement agencies and terrorists."

About 97 percent of Pakistan's population is Muslim. In Karachi, as well as in Pakistan as a whole, Sunnis make up about 70 percent of the population, while Shi'a account for about 20 percent.
Bedi said he also sees a link between the violence in Karachi and moves by Islamabad to stop Islamic militants from crossing into Indian-administered Kashmir to conduct terrorist attacks.

Rahul Bedi is a New Delhi-based correspondent who covers terrorism and security issues on the subcontinent for the London-based Jane's Defense Group. Bedi told RFE/RL today that the causes of sectarian violence in Karachi are extremely complicated. "It's a huge, complicated, explosive mixture of ethnicity, of rivalry, of religious tension, of drug money, of weaponry," he said. "And along with it, the Pakistani military intelligence and Pakistani Army is also involved in it to a fairly large extent."

Bedi said he believes the root cause of the tensions are long-running disputes between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims over fundamental differences in their beliefs. But he said the situation in Karachi is being exacerbated by the way different parts of that city are controlled by different ethnic, religious, and even criminal groups. He said the territorial nature of Karachi drug-smuggling groups also may be a contributing factor, as well as the large number of Afghan refugees who have fled Pakistan since the late 1970s.

"These are the ramifications of the Afghan war because after the refugees fled from Afghanistan in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, they came into Pakistan and then they slowly proliferated into areas like Karachi, which really became a battleground between the various ethnic communities. And along with the ethnicities came the sectarianism," Bedi said.

Bedi said he also sees a link between the violence in Karachi and moves by Islamabad to stop Islamic militants from crossing into Indian-administered Kashmir to conduct terrorist attacks. "This [sectarian violence in Pakistan] is something that is likely to escalate over the next few weeks," he said. "The military and the intelligence agencies in Pakistan have, over the last six to eight months, put a lid on a lot of the activities of a lot of militant groups in the disputed region of Kashmir. So, because of the peace initiatives between India and Pakistan, a lot of these groups have been prevented by the intelligence agencies from operating in Kashmir. It's really like a pressure-cooker whistle being blown internally [in Pakistan], because the only thing these jihadi groups really know how to do is fight. We are, I think, likely to see the beginnings of a lot of problems internally within Pakistan, and the manifestations of it are over the last few days where these mosques have been blown up and a lot of these important clerics have been killed."

In fact, Bedi said he also expects to see violence increase between Shi'a and Sunnis in the northern part of Kashmir, which is administered by Pakistan. "This tension between Shi'a and Sunnis is going to grow enormously," he said. "And it is going to also grow in the Shi'a-dominated areas of northern Kashmir. It is something that the world is not really looking at. The northern areas of Kashmir, which Pakistan controls, are Shi'a dominated, and they border Central Asia. This is the area that Pakistan is very tense about because it is a Shi'a-dominated area. And they are trying to dilute the majority in the Shi'a-dominated areas by settling Sunnis there. This is really causing a lot of problems and a lot of ripples. For the moment, it is being contained. But there are murmurings of revolt coming out of there. So that is another area that is a potential flash point."

Allama Hassan Turabi, a Shi'a leader and cleric in Pakistan, rejects Bedi's analysis on the complicated forces behind the tensions in Karachi. Instead, Turabi suggested to his followers and to the international media that the United States and Israel are trying to provoke sectarian violence. He is calling for unity between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims.

"All those forces that are against the unity of Muslims, America that is bombing in Iraq, that is killing [Hamas leader Sheik] Ahmad Yassin, assassinating [Iraqi Shi'a leader Muhammad] Baqir al-Hakim, responsible for the bomb blast at the Haideri mosque, the killing of Mufti Shamzai -- that is the work of one hand which intends to shatter the unity of Muslims and intends to make them quarrel by provocation. But we promise, the Muslims promise, Sunnis and Shi'a make promises to their brethren the Pakistani people, that we will strengthen this unity at every cost," Turabi said.