A Shia backlash in the offing in Pakistan?

A Shia backlash in the offing?

suicide bomb dera ismail khan

After a suicide bomber killed at least 30 Shias and injured another 157 who were attending the funeral of an already murdered Shia leader in the southern district of Dera Ismail Khan in the NWFP, the victimised Shia community has staged protests in all the big and small cities of the country. The Shia youth organised under the Imamia Students Organisation (ISO), and led by their local clerics, clearly manifested signs of disquiet that may give rise to more widespread sectarian violence.

For some years now, the ISO has been lying low after realising that avenging Sunni violence is counterproductive. It was formed in 1972, and in the 1980s it aimed to protect the Shia community against a freewheeling spree of Shia-killing on the part of the politico-sectarian militias created by the state to fight jihad in Kashmir against India. Today, that policy of low-profile reaction could be coming under pressure simply because the state is not capable of giving them the protection they deserve under the Constitution.

The problem the Shia face is in the nature of extremist Sunni violence. These terrorists kill indiscriminately and target innocent people. This requires not much planning and the victims are easy to reach. On the other hand, when the Shia organisations reacted to violence in the 1980s, they had to seek specific targets. They had to ascertain the sectarian identity of the targeted Sunnis, which made the war unequal for the Shia. The other consideration which stayed the Shia hand was the general reactive Sunni hatred of the Shia community in the aftermath of a battle.

In due course, the Shia religious leadership adopted a new strategy of moving closer to the Sunni clergy in the hope of persuading the sectarian extremists to exempt them. They joined the Mutahidda Majlis-e Amal (MMA) electoral alliance before the 2002 elections and sat in the councils of the great Sunni clerics to see if protection would be given to them. Unfortunately, no protection was forthcoming and the Shia went on dying while being allies of the big Sunni religious parties in the country. The MMA did not give them a single seat in the assemblies in the provinces or the centre.

Our neighbour and brotherly country Iran, whom we keep referring to as our energy lifeline, came to the help of the Shia of Pakistan in the beginning, but later agreed to the “lie-low” strategy adopted by the Shia leaders in Pakistan. It toned down its routine protests in Tehran in front of the Pakistan embassy every time a Shia pogrom was carried out in Pakistan. It pocketed the humiliation of the killings of its military personnel sent to Pakistan for training. It took in stride the destruction of its cultural centres in Lahore and Multan, and the killing of its two diplomats. An Iranian diplomat kidnapped from Peshawar last year has not yet been recovered. Greater restraint could not have been demonstrated in the face of such provocation. And yet our state has done nothing to protect the life and dignity of Iranian diplomats in Pakistan.

The Iranian protests have now restarted. Earlier this week, a crowd of youths attacked Pakistan’s embassy in Tehran, protesting the killing of the Shia in Parachinar in the Kurram Agency of the tribal areas of Pakistan. The crowd desecrated the Pakistani flag and broke windowpanes and shouted slogans against America. The Shia are under siege in Parachinar for the past many years. The massacres in Kurram Agency have seen regular trickles of Shias migration. Over the years, cities like Thal, Hangu and Kohat have developed significant pockets of migrant Shia population. All this area is also the target of the Afghan refugees who have leaked out of the Afghan refugee camps and don’t plan on going home because becoming a part of the Al Qaeda fighting machine is more lucrative. They take the identity of Taliban and do a lot of Shia-killing on the side. An informally named ghetto, Shiagarh, is an obvious target, located just 10 miles from Kohat going to the city of Hangu.

Recently, Dera Ghazi Khan and Bhakkar in Punjab too have seen Shia massacres with the government standing helplessly by. The latest Shia protest all across Pakistan may be signalling a change of policy through sheer desperation. If this happens, Pakistan will see more bloodshed than it can take and survive. (Daily Times, Editorial, 22 Feb 2009)


Sectarian violence

Sunday, 22 Feb, 2009 | 09:31 AM PST

Residents gather near the bodies of bomb blast victims during a funeral ceremony in the city of Dera Ismail Khan.— Reuters

Residents gather near the bodies of bomb blast victims during a funeral ceremony in the city of Dera Ismail Khan.— Reuters

FROM afar, the breakout of sectarian fighting in D.I. Khan may appear as yet another depressing phase in an internecine local conflict. But that would be misleading. The devastating suicide bombing of the funeral procession of a slain Shia local carries all the hallmarks of imported violence. Looming large over all sectarian violence in Pakistan in recent times is the figure of Qari Hussain. A militant commander based in South Waziristan, Hussain, who is also known by the nom de guerre Ustad-i-Fidayeen (teacher of militants), is believed to be a recruiter and trainer of suicide bombers and has infused his ideology with a virulent stream of sectarianism. In January, a 40-minute video recording handed out in Peshawar by Hussain’s group contained a disturbing series of images. In addition to claiming responsibility for a number of high-profile attacks, including the truck bombing of the FIA centre in Lahore last year and an attack on an ISI office in Rawalpindi in 2007, the video showed indoctrinated boys and young men swearing to launch more attacks. What was hard to miss was the overtly sectarian nature of the propaganda.

Adding credibility to the Qari Hussain connection to the attack in D.I. Khan on Friday was the use of a suicide bomber described by eyewitnesses to be around 20 years old. A report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding has highlighted the use of young men from the two Waziristan agencies as suicide bombers: “Analysing the 2007 database of 26 cases of suicide attacks in Pakistan (out of a total of 61) where [the] Special Investigative Unit of Pakistan’s FIA recovered crucial evidence, [the FIA] concluded: ‘More than 80 per cent of suicide bombers belong to [the] Mehsud tribe (residing in South and North Waziristan) and were aged 15 to 20’.”

Only an investigation into the D.I. Khan bombing can determine if the circumstantial evidence pointing in the direction of Waziristan and Qari Hussain is in fact true. But, as we have stressed before, the different strains of militancy in Pakistan have overlapped to the point where it makes little sense to treat sectarian violence as separate from Al Qaeda attacks and militancy in Punjab as different from that in Fata and northern Pakistan. Qari Hussain is the embodiment of those overlaps, and some continuing contradictions: he has targeted the state, attacked Shias in Punjab and the NWFP, and fought with fellow Mehsud tribesman, leader of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud. Defeating the hydra of militancy does require different tactics at the local level, but there must be overall strategic coherency too. Currently, Pakistan is fighting the militants piecemeal in different areas of the country. That must change; the militants must be pursued across the length and breadth of the country simultaneously. (Dawn, 22 Feb 2009)

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