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Pakistan: Sectarian violence threatens elections

Some Pakistani Shiites say martial law is the only thing that can stem the terrorist tide.

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Relatives transport an injured bomb blast victim in Karachi, Pakistan, on March 3, 2013. A bomb attack in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, on March 3 killed at least 45 people and wounded 150 others, officials said. (Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images)

KARACHI, Pakistan — An armless doll, its hair singed with soot, lies next to a bloodstain in Abbas Town, a Shiite district of Karachi where a 150-kilogram bomb exploded on Sunday night.

Standing next to the doll, and among the twisted steel rods of two gutted buildings, is Tabassum. The edge of her scarf is in her hands, she dabs the tears running down her face.

“Last November, when a bomb went off in this area, my apartment walls cracked apart,” said Tabassum, who used a false name for safety. “My husband said that it would come back to haunt us, so we paid for someone to re-plaster it.”

“What was the point? We should have known then that the area had become too dangerous.”

At least 45 people were killed in the attack, which took place as worshippers returned home from evening prayer at a nearby Shiite mosque. Among them was Tabassum’s 11-year-old daughter, who died in the attack. Tabassum said that when the walls splintered apart, her daughter was flung into the street below.

Tabassum and her family, along with most of the residents in Abbas Town, belong to Pakistan’s Shiite minority. Approximately 20 percent of the country’s 180 million residents are Shiite.

Though conflict between Sunni and Shiite in Pakistan has a long history, the violence has become more vicious in the last two years. In 2012, close to 400 Shiites were killed in Pakistan — the highest number in memory, experts said. This year, three large-scale attacks have killed about 200 people already.

Analysts said the situation is only getting worse as the country heads into elections.

Though no group has taken responsibility for Sunday’s attack, authorities suspect Lashkar e Jhangvi, one of several Sunni militant organizations fighting for the expulsion of Shiite Islam from Pakistan.

Lashkar e Jhangvi, which many Pakistanis fear more than the Taliban, is the most notorious of these groups. It was founded in 1996 as a militant offshoot of Sipah e Sahaba, a religious political party that emerged in the 1980s — after the Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran brought Shiites to power there — to counter Shiite influence.

The group was funded in part by Saudi Arabia, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks. It also initially had the support of the Pakistani government. But 2002 the general-turned-president, Pervez Musharaff, formally banned the organization, succumbing to international pressure.

The move did little to stop Lashkar e Jhangvi. The group went underground, becoming more militant and strengthening its ties with the Pakistani Taliban. In the last two years it has resurfaced in a major way, carrying out massive attacks.

Lashkar e Jhangvi took responsibility for the last two large-scale attacks on Shiites in Pakistan, both of which took place in the southwestern city of Quetta. After the first attack in January killed almost 100 people, thousands of Shiites took to the streets to demand government action.

The president disbanded the provincial civilian government and put the entire province of Balochistan under federal jurisdiction.

Despite these moves, Lashkar e Jhangvi managed a second major attack in February, which killed 86 people. After more public protests, the central government ordered the military into the province. Tthe military quickly rounded up 170 suspects. Two days later, the leader of Lashkar e Jhangvi, Malik Ishaq, was also arrested.

But security analysts in Pakistan say that the government’s response has been superficial at best. They say this most recent attack in Karachi actually shows an unwillingness by the government to take on Lashkar e Jhangvi, and other terrorist organizations in Pakistan.

"The security establishment thinks that these organizations are proxies and can be used against Afghanistan and against India," said Raza Rumi, an Islamabad-based analyst. "That's why there's a high tolerance for these groups."

Local activists worry the attacks may force Shiite groups to take up arms themselves, operating as militias in tit-for-tat killings. That kind of escalation in sectarian violence could further destabilize Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and financial capital.

Some analysts said the attacks are thinly veiled messages to the country’s politicians, who have traditionally used militant groups to help form electoral alliances and for vote buying.

Pakistan’s current administration is scheduled to dissolve in two weeks, allowing a caretaker government to step in before general elections take place in mid-May.

One expert at a prominent Pakistani university, who wished to remain anonymous, said Pakistan’s politicians are unlikely to tackle militancy head-on at at time when they’re expected to appear at public rallies for campaign events.

Their fears aren't unfounded. Many senior Pakistani politicians have been assasinated or attacked for their policies. Benazir Bhutto, who returned to Pakistan in 2007, was assasinated during a rally in Rawalpindi. Another former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in 1999.

The Taliban, which has a strategic alliance with Lashkar e Jhangvi, offered the Pakistan government a ceasefire if it adopts Islamic law and cut ties with the United States. While Pakistan’s leaders have requested immediate negotiations with the Taliban, hoping to stem the violence and pave the way for elections, it’s unlikely to meet the Taliban's demands.

Tabassum, and the many victims of the Abbas Town blast, said military law might be the best solution.

“In the 1990s, when sectarian violence was really bad, Musharraf’s martial law solved the problem,” said one man. “At least when the military was in control, we didn’t worry about our lives.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/pakistan/130305/pakistan-shiite-sunni-bombing-terrorism-elections-