KARACHI, Pakistan — At Karachi's giant Shershah automobile parts market, customers are scarce nowadays, fearing more violence of the sort that left 13 dead last month. The gunmen arrived by motorbike and rampaged through the narrow alleys of the bazaar, executing shopkeepers.
It was a shocking example of the attacks by ethnic gangs that are threatening to engulf Pakistan's biggest city and paralyze a vital part of the country's flagging economy, politicians, officials and foreign diplomats warn.
The groups are not so well known as the Taliban and al Qaida, the religious extremists who also plague this megacity of 18 million. Last week, a car bomb demolished the compound of the anti-terror police in Karachi, killing 18 people, an attack blamed on a group allied to al Qaida.
In Karachi, most of the violence is clan-based, and the killers operate as criminal gangs, engaged in a turf war. The Shershah market traders are largely "Mohajirs" who came here decades ago from northern India, while the assailants were believed to be ethnic Baloch, originally from the Pakistani province of Balochistan.
The gang war, which kicked off a year ago and claims several victims a day, had mostly involved the Mohajirs and the city's huge ethnic Pashtun population, but the Shershah killings confirm that the Baloch are now a third major player. Periodically, the bloodshed flares up into a multi-day killing frenzy. Elsewhere in Pakistan, Islamic extremists are blamed for the mayhem. But in Karachi, it's mobsters with political cover.
"It would only take one small thing for outright civil war to erupt in Karachi," said a Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "The question is whether there is going to be a tipping point."
What makes it intractable, and able to veer out of control, according to police, is that the principal gangs are linked to political parties — not just any parties, but those sharing in the civilian-led coalition that governs Pakistan.
A senior Karachi security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he isn't allowed to speak to foreign media, said that police are "powerless" to stop the ethnic clash, as each warring group enjoyed political patronage. He warned that if it continued, the city could end up like Beirut, with clans fighting it out from their enclaves across the city.
By some estimates, Karachi accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the entire economy of key U.S. anti-terror ally Pakistan, making it a highly lucrative target for money-hungry gangs from poor neighborhoods. Karachi matters greatly to the U.S., as 40 percent of all supplies to U.S. troops in neighboring Afghanistan funnels through the port.
Last month, the mix of criminal, ethnic and sectarian killing claimed 169 lives, with 1,300 dying in violence in Karachi over the past year, according to the Citizens Police Liaison Committee, an official organization that holds the police to account. Most of the victims belonged to no political party but were humble people targeted for their ethnicity or the area they lived in. They included roadside vendors, drivers of rickshaws and shopkeepers.
For years, one ethnic-based party, the Muttahida Quami Movement, which represents the Mohajirs, had a stranglehold on Karachi, allegedly running an extortion operation and death squads, according to police and rival political parties.
Now, the Baloch, and the Pashtuns, originally from northwest Pakistan but long established in the city, each with its own violent street gangs, are challenging the MQM. The bloodshed at Shershah market was one grim example. The security official said the attack on the market was a stark demonstration that the Baloch, who are based in the adjacent rundown Lyari area, had also emerged as a power.
The Baloch are associated with the Pakistan Peoples Party, which leads the national government in Islamabad, while the Pashtuns are represented by the Awami National Party. The situation is further complicated by the fact that all three political parties might be warring on the streets but they're also in the coalition government together. The fighting in Karachi regularly rocks the government in Islamabad and could yet bring it down.
The MQM, which controls about 80 percent of Karachi, claims it's the victim of propaganda from its enemies.
"In Karachi, it is the MQM versus the rest," said Haider Rizvi, a member of the national parliament from Karachi for the MQM. "We have been painted so black that even if a cat is killed, it is blamed on us."
The three-way ethnic tussle doesn't explain all the strands of Karachi violence. There's also a break-away faction of the MQM known as Haqiqi, which is at war with the original MQM, and Sunni Tehreek, a sectarian group.
At its heart: money, including profits from extorting protection money from shops, factories and offices, a property grabbing operation — occupying land or buildings — and the drug trade. The competition is over who collects. Crossing a single street can take you into the territory of another gang. Only the upscale areas of Defence and Clifton, where the city's elite lives, are spared.
Saleem Hingoro, a member of the provincial parliament for the Pakistan Peoples Party, for Karachi's Lyari area, insists his party doesn't support the Baloch gangs.
But, Hingoro added: "Criminals are taking shelter in every political party. If the parties stopped giving criminals shelter, the killing would stop. But all the parties would need to do this together."
The Awami National Party wants the army called in to clean things up. Shahi Syed, the head of the party in Karachi, told McClatchy that the city needs an operation like the anti-Taliban offensives in the northwest of the country.
"Without an army operation here, the whole of Pakistan will be brought down," Syed said. "Karachi is the heart of Pakistan."
At Shershah market, there is now, belatedly, a visible police presence, but the shop owners still don't feel safe. One trader quietly told how on Oct. 19, gunmen pulled up the steel shutters of his store and shot his two sons and brother inside. His sons, age 24 and 26, died, while his brother was critically injured and is now partly paralyzed.
The shop owner said that he, along with every other outlet in the market, was dutifully paying extortion money to Baloch gangs.
"They shot them as if they were infidels," said the shop owner, who didn't want his name used out of fear for his safety. "We are not linked to any political party. We were just doing our business. What was our fault?"
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)
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