A suicide bomber has targeted a Shiite procession in southern Pakistan, killing at least 15 people. Attacks on Shiites have intensified over the years - a result of the state's support for Sunni extremists, say experts.
The attacker hit the procession of the Ashoura mourners on Friday in the southern city of Jacobabad, according to Pakistani police officials. The suicide attack also wounded dozens of people, including at least six children, who the authorities say are in critical condition.
"The death toll could rise," said Yar Mohammad Lashari, a Jacobabad police official.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Sunni extremist organizations are known for their violent opposition to the minority Shiite sect, whom they consider non-Muslims.
Witnesses described scenes of mayhem and chaos at the attack site, with injured people being rushed to nearby hospitals on ambulances and rickshaws.
"We were some three kilometers from the spot and heard the blast," Jan Odhano, a rights activist in the city, told the AFP news agency. "We rushed towards the spot. We saw people running here and there, some were crying and wailing. We could see blood on the clothes of some people," he added.
A day earlier, a suicide bomber, disguised as a woman, targeted a Shiite mosque in the Sibi district of the southwestern Balochistan province, killing at least 10 people. Six children were among the dead.
The attacks happen despite government's claims of fool-proof security measures to protect the members of the minority sect.
Ashoura marks the assassination of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Islam's prophet Muhammad, by then caliph Yazid's army, in the Iraqi city of Karbala in the year 680.
State's Sunni support
Of late, Pakistan's Sunni militant extremists with links to al Qaeda and the Taliban have intensified their attacks on minority Shiites. Pakistani human rights groups accuse the country's security agencies of backing Sunni militants and failing to protect the minority groups of the country.
Development worker and political activist Maqsood Ahmad Jan believes the government's insistence on peace talks with the Taliban and other radical groups are emboldening them to act against religious minorities.
But Sikandar Hayat Janjua, a member of the socialist Awami Workers Party in Karachi, says it would be foolish to expect that the government would launch an operation against Sunni militants.
"The Sunni extremist groups are practically the militant wings of the country's security agencies, and no organization would like to act against itself," Janjua told DW.
Ali Chishti, a security and political analyst in Karachi, argues that the Pakistani state has failed to protect not just the Shiites but most of its citizens. "Pakistan is headed in a completely wrong direction and faces an existential threat due to its policies," Chishti said.
Many Pakistani analysts trace the origins of sectarian violence in Pakistan to the Afghan War of the 1980s. They say that Pakistan's former military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq made it a state policy to fund and arm extremist Wahhabi groups in the 1980s, using these organizations against the Shiites to kill Iran's support in Pakistan and to increase its influence in Afghanistan.
A Saudi-Iran proxy war
Experts believe that the Saudi-backed Sunni hardliners are targeting Shiites to kill Iran's support in Pakistan.
"Pakistani Shiites have close ties with Iran. On the other hand, Baloch separatists prefer to be with Tehran rather than Islamabad. This makes both the Shiites and Balochs suspicious in the eyes of the various stakeholders in the establishment. It is certainly not acceptable to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers," Nahyan Mirza, a communication expert in Islamabad, told DW, explaining the more volatile situation for the Shiites in the restive Balochistan province.
According to Siegfried O. Wolf, a senior research fellow and lecturer at the University of Heidelberg's South Asia Institute, for Pakistan's Islamic fundamentalists the country is a "Sunni Wall" against Shiite Iran. "The policy of containing the Shiite influence in the region was seriously affected after the collapse of the Sunni-Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq. These events created a power vacuum which is now being increasingly filled by Tehran. Saudi Arabia does not want to see the rise of Iran and will continue to do anything to ensure Sunni dominance," he told DW.
Wolf said that attacks on Shiites would continue until Islamabad stopped differentiating and negotiating with Islamic extremists.
Amin Mughal, a Pakistani journalist and scholar in London, believes that the policy of supporting Islamist groups has backfired and that the Pakistani state is no longer in a position to control the situation.
"It is a logical consequence of state policies which are based on religion," Mughal told DW, adding that the only way out of the crisis was for "true secular parties" to come to power and change the course of state affairs.