Sectarianism in Pakistan and Iraq on the Eve of Ashura

Bomb kills at least 11 in Iraq in key Shi'ite holiday period
By Hamza Hendawi, Boston Globe, January 18, 2008

BAGHDAD - A suicide bomber struck Shi'ites as worshipers prepared yesterday for their most important holiday, killing at least 11 at a mosque in violent Diyala Province - one day after a similar attack by a woman in a nearby village.

Police and eyewitnesses said one of the victims had intercepted the bomber when he saw him making his way through the crowd. "Stranger, stranger," he shouted as he grabbed the bomber, who instantly detonated the blast.

A spike in bombings in recent weeks is chipping away at security gains made over the past six months, when levels of violence dropped nationwide. Many of the attacks have targeted Sunnis who have turned against the main insurgent group, Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Authorities fear the Shi'ite religious events - marking the death of a 7th-century Shi'ite saint - could increasingly fall into the cross-hairs of Sunni extremists.

Iraqi officials stepped up security across much of the country to protect the Shi'ite processions for the holiday period, culminating in events known as Ashoura. In Baghdad, a 48-hour ban on heavy vehicles went into effect, and Iraqi Army troops and police were out in greater numbers on patrols and checkpoints.

The heaviest security was in the holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad, where some 30,000 troops watched over hundreds of thousands of pilgrims performing Ashoura rites.

Sunni Arab militants have repeatedly targeted Ashoura processions, with hundreds killed by mortar shelling or car bombings since 2003. Ashoura commemorates the battlefield death of Imam Hussein, whose tomb is in Karbala, about 60 miles from Baghdad.

Ashoura is essentially a mournful occasion. But Iraq's majority Shi'ites have used it to showcase their dominant status after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime. Hundreds of thousands march to Karbala or organize processions in their hometowns.

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Daily Times, January 19, 2008

After a lull in Shia-killing — described by many as the result of a “truce” between the parties involved in a sectarian war “outside” the region — the curse is back with a vengeance in Pakistan and in Iraq. A teenaged suicide bomber on Thursday struck an imambargah in Peshawar’s crowded Qissa Khwani quarter and killed 12 and injured 25 despite tight security arrangements. The boy pushed through the crowd, fired three shots, then blew himself up by igniting his explosives belt, when he was about to be nabbed.

A day earlier, a woman wearing an explosives belt blew herself up near a Shia mosque in Baquba city of the Diyala province north of Baghdad, killing 11. The wounded Shias could not be treated in Baquba because the city is Sunni-dominated. On Thursday another suicide bomber exploded himself in the midst of a Shia procession as it prepared to go down a street in Baquba, killing eight, and signalling more deaths as Iraq moves towards the culmination of the Muharram rituals on Saturday (today).

If there is an accidental timing in the events in Pakistan and Iraq, then it is curiously happening with dull regularity. In 2003 and 2004, the massacres in Pakistan and Iraq were simultaneous. Quetta and Karachi were targeted and the culprits were caught by the police with the passage of time. They belonged to the “mother” organisation of all the Deobandi extremists heretofore involved in jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. But the clerics belonging to the Shia and Sunni communities declared in 2003 and 2004 that the killings had been carried out by the Americans, following the lead given by Iraq’s grand ayatollah, Sistani.

This was enough to take the blame away from the local killers and also relieve the authorities of the pressure of investigating the massacres. In 2006, a Shia scholar Hasan Turabi declared that he was on the hit list of the Sipah-e Sahaba men (another blanket term) who had just then been released by the Sindh High Court for lack of evidence. But no one took note. They tried to kill him on a street of Karachi, but failed. After that they used a suicide-bomber to kill him outside his home in Karachi. Ironically he had just come back after making a fiery speech against America and Israel at an MMA rally condemning Israel’s invasion of Lebanon.

The sectarian war has been going on in the Kurram Agency of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas for the past six months. The divided city of Parachinar was squared off between the two communities helplessly killing each other over a dispute that had been forgotten in the face of the instinct for revenge. But before the government could put out the sectarian fire, a lot had been damaged. A large number of Shia refugees had to flee south towards Kohat, avoiding Aurakzai Agency where the sectarian fire was already burning over a shrine that both sects had begun disputing after years of mutual tolerance. Then Kohat, already under attack because of its military cantonment, became tense as anti-Shia sentiment was built up by well-known personalities — one actually appeared on the scene to mediate between opposed parties at Lal Masjid — identified with the defunct Sipah-e Sahaba. New madrassas were hurriedly established near the district boundaries and acolytes there were brought in from outside the district, after which the locals were asked not to rent houses to the Shia. There is therefore a big sectarian bomb that is on a long fuse while small bombs keep on going off.

All over the world, there is pattern to communal violence. The killings cause the minority to flee into small areas where they find themselves in a majority. This is called ghettoisation and this is also the beginning of target killing. The killers fall upon these isolated communities because of large pickings offered there. With the passage of time, cities with concentrated target communities become the hub of violence. It has happened in India and it is now happening in Pakistan. There are cities in Pakistan which are regularly announced as endangered areas by the state when Muharram comes around. But suicide bombing is almost impossible to prevent.

The suicide-bombing in Peshawar on Thursday was an “unsuccessful” one because the man was accosted and stopped by the guards before he could enter the imambargah. Only the guards and the people at the gate died. In the past where the bomber was able to enter the place of worship, the death toll was many times higher. The war has come from outside and has been imposed on Pakistan with the help of the militias trained by the state in the past. It is a part of the larger design, too, to destabilise the government and replace it with a more malleable and “democratic” one. But the irony is that a malleable government will run the risk of accepting terms rather than imposing its own. *


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