Pakistan's failure to contain a hard-line Sunni group in an insurgency-plagued southwestern province threatens to come back to haunt it, leaving upcoming national elections at risk.
Protests erupted across the country after the Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e Jhangvi carried out a deadly bomb attack on February 16 against members of the Shi'ite Hazara minority in Balochistan Province.
If the authorities fail to address the crisis, analysts say, continued sectarian strife could delay parliamentary elections slated for early May.
Members of the beleaguered Hazara minority accuse the government of inaction and are demanding that the government take immediate steps to curb Lashkar-e Jhangvi, which has claimed credit for killing more than 1,000 Hazaras in the past five years.
In desperation, members of the minority are taking the exceptional step of refusing to bury victims of the February 16 attack, in which some 90 Hazaras were killed when a crowded Quetta market was targeted.
The attack comes just weeks after Islamabad imposed federal rule on Balochistan after twin bombings killed more than 100 Hazaras. At the time the government pledged to protect the community by going after Lashkar-e Jhangvi.
The authorities' failure to arrest or prosecute any significant members of Lashkar-e Jhangvi could have serious political consequences, says Balochistan-based analyst Zahoor Shahwani. "It's quite obvious that if these kinds of attacks continue it will be difficult to attract people's attention to the elections," Shahwani says. "If their lives and properties are not safe, how can the politicians hold public events and local meetings? How are elections possible in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty?"
The failure to prevent Lashkar-e Jhangvi from carrying out its proclaimed aim of cleansing Pakistan of Shi'a, who it believes are not true Muslims, has led Balochistan Governor Zulfiqar Ali Magsi to question the determination of the country's security and intelligence bodies.
"It's the responsibility of the government to track down the culprits. They should be arrested and punished. It is evidence of our and our intelligence agencies' weakness that we cannot catch them," Magsi said. "It is upsetting. There are two possibilities: one, you cannot track them at all; and two, everybody is scared because [the security forces] may think they will become targets themselves."
Shams Mandokhel, a human rights campaigner in Balochistan, goes so far as to say that the government, through its inaction, could be backing Lashkar-e Jhangvi, which has "a very dangerous mind-set. This mind-set believes in sectarian violence, which is catastrophic. Now, who is promoting this mind-set? Why is it not being stopped?"
Mandokhel explains that Lashkar-e Jhangvi is a fairly recent arrival in Balochistan. It arrived from the eastern Punjab Province, where it emerged as an armed wing of the Sunni group Anjuman-e Sipahe Shaba Pakistan, a fiercely anti-Shi'a group formed in the 1990s. He says the group's ranks are filled by a constant stream of recruits educated at madrasahs that sprouted up across the vast desert region in the last 20 years.
He says that the group also patronizes Jundallah, a militant organization that fights for Sunni Muslims in Iran and has mounted several high-profile attacks in Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province.
Most Jundallah members are ethnic Baluchis and have used Pakistan's Balochistan Province as sanctuary to avoid persecution by Iranian authorities. Former Jundallah leader Abdul Malik Rigi was educated in a hard-line Sunni religious school in Pakistan.
Imagined Threat From Iran
According to Pakistani security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, the targeting of Shi'a in Pakistan has long been linked to Iran. This, she says, was because some extremist factions and elements in Pakistan's security establishment were paranoid about Iran's regional ambitions or its relations with Shi'ite communities in Pakistan.
Iran is ruled by a hard-line Shi'ite clerical regime, while Pakistan is home to the world's second-largest Shi'ite population. Some 20 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people are Shi'a.
Siddiqa notes Lashkar-e Jhangvi has grown from a small organization focused on a few districts in eastern Pakistan into a strong national and transnational network. "This is a resourceful organization and is no longer limited to its base in the eastern Punjab Province. It is equally active in Sindh and Balochistan. One of its offshoots is Lashkar-e Jhangvi Al-Alami, which operated in Afghanistan," he says. "It is quite a large organization with thousands of militant cadres. They have been fighting since the 1980s and their membership is large."
Nevertheless, the Hazara community in Balochistan is unbowed in its efforts to push the government to go wholeheartedly after Lashkar-e Jhangvi. This, they say, is necessary for them to continue living in the restive region.