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Shi'ite attacks pave way for rapid responses
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Tuesday's attacks on Shi'ite worshippers in two locations in Iraq and one in Pakistan occurred almost simultaneously, but while there is no evidence that they were connected, the fallout could have similar results: a free hand for security forces to go after members of the Iraq and Afghan resistance movements.

In Iraq, the death toll has risen to over 180 from synchronized suicide bombings and missile attacks on Shi'ites in the holy city of Karbala and the capital Baghdad, while at least 41 people were killed and more than 150 injured in the southwest Pakistan city of Quetta in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) when gunmen raked a procession of Shi'ite worshippers with machine-gun fire, lobbed grenades and then blew themselves up.

In Pakistan, as in Iraq, the worshippers were marking the festival of Ashura, the climax of the Muslim holy month of Muharram.

The Iraqi incidents have mostly been blamed on al-Qaeda, while in Pakistan suspicion has fallen on the outlawed Sunni group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, which has traditionally attacked Shi'ites in Pakistan. Shi'ites account for about 20 percent of Pakistan's 145 million people (in Iraq, Shi'ites form the dominant bloc, at about 60 percent).

Sacred ceremony
The majority of the population in countries such as India, Pakistan and Iraq practice a version of Islam which is traditional and in tune with local tribal customs and traditions. In the modern age, this is termed non-Salafi Islam, as opposed to the extreme interpretation of Wahhabi Islam, for example, as espoused by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

Muslims of the sub-continent and Iraq have a tradition of mourning the martyrdom of Hussein on Ashura, the 10th day of the Muharram month. This is when, in the 7th century, Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, was assassinated by the army of Yazid, the Umyaid ruler.

It should be noted that on the day of Ashura, notably in Iraq, India and Pakistan, Muslims, both Shi'ite and Sunni, take part in processions. There is a difference, though, as Shi'ites whip and torture themselves in sympathy with the killing of Hussein, Sunnis do not in their Tazia (mourning) processions.

In Pakistan's NWFP and Balochistan provinces, though, the population follows a version of Islam (Deobandis) closer to the Salafi version, and Sunnis in these regions never participate in the Ashura mourning rituals.

Pakistan has a long history of conflict between Shi'ites and Sunnis, resulting in hundreds of deaths over the years, as opposed to Iraq, where such sectarian violence between the two branches of Islam is highly unusual - there were a few isolated events in 1991 in Basra after the Gulf War.

In Pakistan, last July, for example, about 50 Shi'ites were killed in a suicide attack in a mosque in Quetta. Investigations revealed collusion between internal and external elements, but there was no proof of Taliban involvement.

A few weeks after this incident, this correspondent spoke with a member of the Balochistan national assembly and chief of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam, Quetta - Maulana Noor Mohammed - in his seminary in Quetta.

At the time, Pakistan's interior minister was blaming India's Research and Analysis Wing and Afghan intelligence, but Noor Mohammed argued that the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi was involved. He maintained that many of this group's activists had been jailed, but were released as part of President General Pervez Musharraf's political maneuvers to get his man, Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, appointed as prime minister.

"It is on record that we wrote letters to the federal government and provincial home departments that the release of these killers would result in sectarian violence, but given the political ambitions of the Musharraf government, our protests were not heeded," said Noor Mohammed.

The latest Quetta incident has happened at a time when military operations on both the Afghan and Pakistan sides of the border are under way to root out Taliban, al-Qaeda and Afghan resistance members. Pakistani troops have been active on their side, especially in the tribal areas of NWFP, where they have roused local people against them (See Asia Times Online Pakistan stirs a tribal war, Mar 3). The attacks on the Shi'ites will now provide Pakistan's security forces a clear reason to conduct operations in sensitive areas that otherwise would have been difficult.

The Iraqi divide
Following the US-led occupation of Iraq and the toppling of the Sunni-centric Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein, the issue of a Shi'ite-Sunni divide and possible war between them has been widely discussed. In forming the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, the US ensured that Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds received proportional representation.

Yet, as mentioned above, clashes between Shi'ites and Sunnis in Iraq are unusual, although Saddam could possibly be said to have kept a lid on things. Nevertheless, the residents of Baghdad and Basra and the likes are generally able to think beyond their particular religious beliefs.

Many in Iraq, particularly the US, have been quick to point to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in connection with Tuesday's attacks. They cite a purported letter from him to al-Qaeda that surfaced on a computer disc recently in which he calls for al-Qaeda assistance in stirring up Shi'ite-Sunni conflict in Iraq. Interestingly, the US appears to have overlooked that in the past it has linked Zarqawi to the Lebanese Hezbollah, saying that he has taken refuge in Lebanon and that he enjoys a special relationship with the Shi'ite leadership of Hezbollah. Suddenly, a pro-Shi'ite "Sunni extremist" has turned into an anti-Shi'ite "Sunni extremist".

Nevertheless, the latest attacks provide the coalition forces with good reason - like their Pakistani counterparts - to go after the resistance in Iraq with renewed vigor, especially in the Sunni triangle of Baghdad, Mosul and Tikrit.

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Mar 4, 2004

Shi'ite bombings: Civil war a step closer
(Mar 3, '04)

Iraq civil war: Rumors and reality
(Mar 2, '04)


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