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What's Really Behind The Violence In Karachi?

A recent wave of street battles in Karachi this month left 120 people dead.
A recent wave of street battles in Karachi this month left 120 people dead.
At the height of this month's bloodletting in Karachi, when people were dying in the crossfire of warring gunmen, Nawab Khan crouched at home, afraid to venture outside.

When he finally did go out, he found his textile shop had been burned to the ground.

"I've had my fabric store here for 30 years," he said. "When we came here, nothing was left. That was my business and everything is gone with that."

His story is repeated over and over in the port city, where recent fighting killed 120 people and looting reduced thousands of businesses to ruins.

And everywhere, as people sought answers to why the violence broke out on July 5 and lasted for a week, they feared it could happen again.

Without a doubt, the reasons for Karachi's volatility are complex. Just a few are the ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences that divide this port city, as well as the presence of militant groups.

Karachi has always been such a magnet for migrants and refugees that today every possible fault line is present among its 18 million residents.

Political Turf Wars

But the way the week-long bout of violence subsided may also tell much about what was behind it. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is a power rivalry between the city's three largest political parties -- each with its own armed wing.

Curiously, the street fighting ended just before news came that one of the parties, which had recently left an uneasy alliance with its two rivals, signaled it would now rejoin them in Pakistan's ruling coalition. The reconciliation began early this week on July 18 and since then the guns in Karachi have been silent.

The partner which had broken ranks was the MQM (the Muttahida Quami Movement), a local party whose power base is the native Urdu-speaking Mohajirs. Once refugees who came with the partition of India in 1947, they today are the largest ethnic group in Karachi.

Jilted was the PPP (Pakistani Peoples Party), the national party which leads the ruling coalition but which, in Karachi, is based in the historically indigenous Sindhi-speaking population.

And playing the role of third party was the PPP's ally, the ANP (Awami National Party). It is a Pashtun-based party which in Karachi is based among the growing population of Pashtuns who have migrated to the city during the past decades and today make it the biggest Pashtun city in Pakistan.
Family members mourn next to the body of a man killed in a target killing in Karachi. In the first six months of this year, 490 people have been victims of targeted killings in the city.

The split opened wide the competition between the three parties, each of which in Karachi has an armed wing which includes criminal groups.

The armed wings -- undeclared but whose existence nobody disputes -- fought pitched street battles which not only helped redefine the balance of power between the parties but also helped to clarify the turf of competing mafias.

But if any of the three parties feels it won, the victory has a terrible cost.

City Is Still A Tinderbox

By engaging in yet another test of street strength, the parties not only caused the death of many innocent civilians but further divided Pakistan's already most-divided city. And they almost certainly condemned Karachi -- which has already seen two decades of such struggles -- to future blazes.

Karachi-based journalist Zia-ur-Rahman believes there is plenty of dry tinder due to the changing demographics of the city.

"This is an ethnic issue directly related to the large-scale migration of people from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and parts of Sindh to Karachi due to Talibanization and the floods," he says.

"The Urdu-speaking community [Mohajirs] had enjoyed a hold on Karachi, but they are now scared about the increasing number of Pashtuns. By the same token, the purely local Sindhis, who were 60 percent of Karachi's population in 1947, now make up less than 7 percent."

Ironically, many analysts say that the competition is not for jobs. The city's economy is large enough to absorb newcomers.

Instead, the fiercest competition is between the rival community-based parties' leaders over political power. And it is their competition, which regularly spills into the open with inflammatory statements, that helps stoke the tension throughout the city.

Today, the greatest rivalry is between the dominant MQM and the ANP.

MQM leader Haidar Abbass Rizvi regularly claims that violence in Karachi is due to Taliban infiltrating the city. And he implies the Pashtun community -- and by extension the ANP -- shelters them:

"Everyone knows those terrorists and Taliban are hiding in areas where Pashto-speaking people are in majority," he says.

The ANP replies in kind. Its leader in Karachi, Shahi Said, accuses the MQM of using violence because it fears it is losing its dominant position in the city:

"The real problem is that a particular organization [MQM] claims the ownership of Karachi and denies other communities the right to live here," he says. "That organization has forced 3,000 to 4,000 Pashtuns from their neighborhoods so far."
Both parties regularly accuse each other of illegally trying to further their own economic interests in Karachi by grabbing control of government land in areas where they are strong.

They also accuse each other of trying to "cleanse" rival communities from areas they covet in order to distribute land to their supporters.

But such political fist-swinging is hardly confined to just the MQM and ANP.

Prominent PPP leader, Zulfiqar Mirza, vowed recently to never let the MQM, in his words, turn Karachi into a "separate province" for the Mohajirs:

"Sindh was a province when you [MQM] people came here hungry and naked [from India in 1947] and the [Sindhi] people of this province sheltered you," he said. "You'll make Karachi a province over our dead bodies."
Police keep vigil at a security checkpoint in the beleagured city.

The PPP for decades has resented the mass arrival of the Mohajirs to Karachi, the capital of Sindh province, with the partition of India.

That resentment only increased with the Mohajir dominance of the Pakistani government over subsequent decades.

The PPP has only recently made a tentative peace with the MQM after winning national elections in 2008 and inviting them it into a PPP-led government.

As the level of tension in Karachi keeps increasing, the level of violence has risen rapidly over the past months.

Militants Reaping Dividends From Violence

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 1,318 people were killed in Karachi in the first six months of this year alone, not including the recent fighting. Of those, 490 were victims of targeted killings. That is up from Karachi's usual toll of 1,000 violent deaths per year.

If there is any one group that has clearly benefited from the civic unrest, it is militants.

The fighting between the armed wings of the political parties has crippled the police and security forces and made Karachi an attractive shelter for even senior Taliban leaders.

Found hiding in the city last year was Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the No. 2 behind Afghan Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar and a close associate of Osama bin Laden.

Nowadays, the violence in Karachi claims almost as many lives as violence in Pakistan's tribal region and more than terrorist attacks in the rest of Pakistan.

The "Daily Times" of Lahore noted earlier at the start of this year that 705 people had died in targeted killings in Karachi in 2010, compared to 797 people in the tribal region and 427 people in the rest of the country.

But so far, despite the fact that Karachi is the backbone of the country's economy -- contributing by some estimates 68 percent of national revenues -- the government in Islamabad has appeared unable to bring the port city back from the brink.

At the height of the violence early this month, Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik, lashed out angrily at the perpetrators. "Whoever is doing this has a program to destabilize Pakistan," he said.

Left unsaid was who that "whoever" is and, more importantly, what the government is going to do about it.

The urgency to act was highlighted again on July 22 as at least 11 people were killed and 15 others wounded in a new incident. It remains to be seen whether these killings herald a fresh wave of violence.

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