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Shiites under attack

Shams, Shamil / Abdul Ghani Kakar, QuettaJuly 1, 2013

Pakistan's Sunni militants have once again attacked the minority Hazara Shiites in the volatile southwestern Balochistan province. The incidents raise doubts about the government's willingness to deal with terrorism.

Security officials collect evidence at the site of a bomb attack in the outskirts of Peshawar June 30, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Image: Reuters

At least 50 people were killed in Pakistan in a string of terrorist attacks over the weekend. The deadliest of the attacks was perpetrated on the mosque of ethnic Hazara Shiites in the southwestern city of Quetta, the capital of the restive Balochistan province bordering Afghanistan and Iran. More than 70 people were wounded in the incident. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a Sunni militant group, claimed responsibility.

It is not the first time that Sunni militant groups have targeted the peaceful Hazara Shiites and their place of worship. Lately, Pakistan's militant Sunni extremists with links to al Qaeda have intensified their attacks on minority Shiites, whom they do not recognize as Muslims. Over 80 Shiites were killed in a LeJ assault in Quetta on February 16. Similar attacks on Hazara Shiites in January killed at least 86 people.

2012 was one of the deadliest years for Pakistan's Shiites. Human rights groups say that more than 300 Shiites were killed in Pakistan last year in sectarian conflict.

Residents and security officials gather at the site of a bomb attack in the outskirts of Peshawar June 30, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
At least 50 people were killed in a string of attacks against security forces and the Shiite communityImage: Getty Images

People in Pakistan had high hopes that with the change in government after the May 11 parliamentary elections, things would improve in Balochistan. The government of former President Asif Ali Zardari was heavily criticized for its inability to curb the violence in the province.

However, when newly-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appointed Abdul Malik Baloch, a progressive chief minister for Balochistan, people became even more optimistic about the future. But experts say that little has changed in the insurgency-marred region, which is facing a protracted separatist movement. Either the government is not serious about dealing with the issue of terrorism, or it is too weak to do so, experts say.

Failure of the state

Bostan Ali Hazara, spokesman for the Hazara Democratic Party representing the Hazara Shiites, told DW in Quetta that no government official had so far visited the site of the blast. He criticized Islamabad for its lack of empathy for the victims and their families.

The government claims that it is doing its best to protect the lives of the people, in particular the Shiite community. "We cannot stop the suicide bombers, but because of our security arrangements, we were able to minimize the damage," Akber Hussain Durrani, a senior government official in Quetta, told DW.

The citizens, however, are not satisfied with the government's anti-terrorism measures. "It is their duty to protect our lives," a Quetta resident told DW. "We don't know where to go," another resident said, adding that bomb blasts, targeted killings, and kidnappings had become a routine in the province.

Pakistani human rights groups accuse the country's security agencies of backing Sunni militants and failing to protect the minority groups of the country. They also say that both the separatist groups and security forces are committing human rights violations in the province.

Last week, Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission (HRCP) urged security forces and intelligence agencies in the province to "operate within the constitution and law." A HRCP-led fact-finding mission reported "serious human rights violations, enforced disappearances, torture and extra-judicial killings" in Balochistan.

'Wrong priorities'

Analysts are of the view that the Quetta killings have again exposed the risks the Pakistani state has been confronting for many years. They say that unless the Pakistani state changed its priorities, such attacks would not cease in Balochistan and elsewhere in the country.

"The new government has little control over the affairs of the province," said a Baloch activist on condition of anonymity. "The army calls the shots here. Do you think it will allow the democratic government to succeed in the province? Those who think so are living in a fool's paradise. Chaos and violence in Balochistan give legitimacy to the army's control."

Nawaz Sharif, incoming prime minister and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) political party, speaks to his party members, who were voted to political posts in the general election, during a function in Lahore May 20, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)
Sharif made clear that his government would make peace with Islamist militantsImage: Reuters

After coming to power, Prime Minister Sharif made clear that his government would not follow the preceding government's anti-terrorism policy and would instead make peace with Islamist militants, including the Taliban.

Peshawar-based development worker and political activist Maqsood Ahmad Jan believes that Sharif's insistence on peace talks with the Taliban and other radical groups are emboldening the extremists.

"The new rulers have turned a blind eye to the Islamists' atrocities. The result is that the radicals are getting bolder and that kidnappings for ransom are on the rise," Jan told DW. He is of the view that the Islamists will only get stronger under the new rulers.

Ali Chishti, a security and political analyst in Karachi, believes that the Pakistani state has failed to protect not just the Shiites but also most of its citizens. "Pakistan is headed in a completely wrong direction and faces an existential threat due to its policies," Chishti said.

Sectarian violence

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 Islamabad's influence in Afghanistan.

Pakistani soldiers in front of the Assembly building in Quetta, Pakistan. (Copyright: A.G. Kakar)
Some fear that the army might be calling the shots in BalochistanImage: A.G. Kakar

London-based Pakistani journalist and scholar Amin Mughal said that the policy of supporting Islamist groups had backfired and that the Pakistani state was 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.