Threat of sectarian strife adds to nuclear-armed Pakistan's woes

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 28, 2009 

ISLAMABAD — The bombing of a Shiite Muslim religious procession in Pakistan's largest city Monday killed at least 30 people as U.S.-backed President Asif Ali Zardari warned of a "conspiracy" against the country's democracy.

The fourth attack on Pakistan's Shiite minority in recent days fueled fears that a sectarian conflict alongside the nuclear-armed country’s battle with the Pakistani Taliban and other Sunni Muslim extremist groups could topple Zardari’s fragile civilian government, which was elected last year after eight years of military-led rule.

On Sunday, a senior intelligence official with the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan said the Pakistani government “could fall on a given day.” Under ISAF policy, the official spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

The Obama administration and its Western allies are growing anxious that political upheaval is imminent in Pakistan, and that the collapse of Zardari’s government could force the U.S. and its allies to choose between defending democracy and opting for whatever stability that outright or implicit military rule could provide in a crucial anti-terrorism partner.

Members of Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party fear that if push comes to shove Washington would side with the military again, but neither weak civilian rule nor strong military rule would guarantee more effective Pakistani cooperation against Islamic extremists, one senior U.S. official said Monday. In fact, two officials said, Pakistan’s top military leaders have been more reluctant than Zardari has to redirect their attention from archenemy India to Islamic extremism.

The official and others in Islamabad and Washington who agreed to speak did so only on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter with reporters.

A Pakistani Supreme Court decision earlier this month to strike down a political amnesty law and to order corruption cases reopened against Zardari and thousands of other politicians has undermined the government and strengthened the military’s hand.

While activist Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry appeared to be trying to bolster Pakistan’s civilian democracy, two U.S. officials said that the military, which has access to most communications in the country, learned of his decision in advance and was taking advantage of that.

In a fiery speech Sunday at the graveside of his wife, assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari charged that forces were plotting to topple his government. Although the military has ruled Pakistan for most of its history, he didn’t identify his enemies, referring to them obliquely as “they” for most of his speech.

“They are not afraid of Asif Zardari. They are afraid of democracy,” Zardari said on the second anniversary of his wife’s murder, generally thought to be by Islamic extremists. “We know what happens when institutions clash, and we don’t want to see such a day.”

Zardari underscored his message in a commentary Monday in The Wall Street Journal. He wrote: “Some of these forces who were allied with dictatorship in the past now hope that the judicial process can undo the will of a democratic electorate and destabilize the country.”

The threat of Sunni-Shiite strife similar to that in Iraq, coming atop Zardari’s escalating clash with the military and Pakistan’s deep economic despair, only adds to the president’s — and the country’s — fragility.

Karachi, where Monday’s attack took place, is Pakistan’s economic capital and lifeline to the outside world, but it’s also an ethnic tinderbox. Until three Shiite marches were targeted in recent days, however, it had been spared the terrorist attacks that have ripped through the country’s other urban centers over the last two years.

“This is a brutal and barbaric act of terrorism,” said Farooq Sattar, a federal government minister from Karachi. “The conspiracy is very clear: to derail the economic hub of Pakistan and destabilize the country.”

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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