Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Bush's Iraq War is in danger of destabilizing Pakistan

Iraq’s sectarian violence haunts Pakistan
Web posted at: 1/24/2007 2:57:28
Source ::: REUTERS

ISLAMABAD • Plagued by sectarian violence imported from the Gulf during the 1980s, Pakistan is on guard for any spillover from the conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites gripping Iraq.

Bombs can go off anytime for many reasons in Pakistan, but the coming days mark an anxious period for the country's Shi'ite minority as they mourn the death of one their sect's heroes in the Islamic festival of Moharram.

So far, there has been no reaction to events in Iraq, but Pakistani leaders view what's happening there with trepidation, as 15 per cent of the Muslim nation are Shi'ites.

As if he didn't have enough to worry about with Al Qaeda, the Taleban, jihadi groups fighting the Indian army in Kashmir, and Baluch separatist rebels, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf shudders at the spectre of sectarian strife.

"The Islamic world is heading towards a crisis," Musharraf told university students earlier this month, at a time when the world was aghast over Shi'ite guards taunting Iraq's Sunni former ruler, Saddam Hussein, at the gallows.

"If we don't get our act together, there will be a sectarian catastrophe in the Islamic world," said Musharraf.

Sunni sectarian extremists have already forged links with Al Qaeda following Musharraf's alliance with the United States after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Osama bin Laden's henchmen directed Pakistani Sunni militants to carry out assassination attempts on Musharraf and his Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz in 2003 and 2004.

Syed Sajid Ali Naqvi, a senior Shi'ite leader in an Islamist opposition alliance, made up of one Shi'ite and five Sunni parties, said Pakistan's political clerics were deliberately avoiding a topic that is consuming Muslims everywhere.

"We have not made any statements on the situation in Iraq and we have also dissuaded our (Sunni) colleagues from doing so. We have decided that we will not be influenced by what's happening in Iraq or any other country," Naqvi said.

At the weekend, Shi'ites throughout the Islamic world began a month of mourning, known as Moharram.

The climax of Moharram is the tenth day, known as Ashura, when worshippers beat themselves with sharpened chains during Shi'ite processions.


During last year's Ashura, a suicide bomber killed at least 40 people and wounded dozens in an attack on a Shi'ite procession in the town of Hangu in North West Frontier Province. During 2003, at least 57 Shi'ites were killed in Quetta during Ashura.

Security has been beefed up at Shi'ite community centres across the country and troops paraded in major cities in a show of power on Monday aimed at deterring violence during Ashura, which falls on January 30 in Pakistan.

"In view of past events, we have made foolproof arrangements to face any eventuality. Police and paramilitary troops have already been deployed. Other forces (army) can be called, if needed," Shoaib Nosherwani, Home Minister of southwestern Baluchistan province, said yesterday. Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan.

Compared with the carnage in Iraq, Pakistan is little more than a sideshow in the struggle going on between militants of Islam's two main sects.

But over the past quarter century, thousands of Pakistanis have died in the conflict between feuding Sunni and Shi'ite militant groups active across the country.

The radicalisation of both sects during the 1980s created a sectarian tinderbox in a nation where most Sunnis belong to the moderate Barelvi sect, which venerates saints and shrines.

During the Eighties, Deobandis, a South Asian Sunni sub-sect that shares similar beliefs to the Arabian Peninsula's strictly orthodox Wahabis, grew in strength thanks to an Islamisation drive by Pakistan's then military ruler, General Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq.

Pakistani intelligence channelled funds, covertly supplied by the United States and Saudi Arabia, to hardline Sunni groups to recruit and arm fighters for a jihad, or holy war, against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Simultaneously, the success of the Islamic Revolution in neighbouring Iran led to a wave of Shi'ite radicalism in Pakistan that set the scene for a feud with the Deobandi groups that has dragged on for the past quarter century.

Although there are no strong ties between groups operating in Iraq and the two Muslim communities largely live at peace with each other in Pakistan, analysts fear the conflict in the Gulf can again polarise Pakistani Sunnis and Shi'ites, despite Musharraf's crackdown on sectarian groups and preachers of hate.

"If the situation in Iraq gets worse it could impact Pakistan. It has the potential to become a real danger," Irshad Ahmed Haqqani, a newspaper columnist said.

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