KARACHI — More members of Pakistan’s Shiite Muslim religious minority were killed by Sunni Muslim extremists this year than in any previous year, a development that could further destabilize this key U.S. ally and draw it into the widening Shiite-Sunni conflict that up to now has been manifest primarily in Middle Eastern countries.
Unlike conflicts in Iraq and Syria, where the violence runs both ways, nearly all the deaths along the sectarian divide in Pakistan are on the Shiite side. Anti-Shiite groups here have linked up with Pakistani Taliban militants, who are close to al Qaida and were previously focused on attacking the security forces, forming a deadly coalition.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are believed to support Sunni hardliners in Pakistan, while Iran is thought to be providing some aid to the Shiites. The biggest anti-Shiite group, Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), operates openly in Pakistan.
According to Hasan Murtaza, an independent researcher, 456 Shiites have been killed this year through Monday in violence that has stretched across the country. Of those, 103 deaths took place in Karachi and 120 in the western city of Quetta. That’s more than double the casualties of 2011 and, Murtaza said, the highest figure since Pakistan came into existence in 1947.
The violence reached a grim climax this month as eight bomb blasts targeted Shiite processions commemorating Muharram, the month of ritual mourning that began Nov. 16. At least 31 people died.
“Are we also not human? Democracy surely means that every community is allowed to live the way they want,” said a sobbing Salma Jaffri, mother of Waseem, a 22-year-old who was shot in the head by unseen gunmen as he attended a Shiite funeral procession in Karachi’s Liaquatabad district earlier this month.
“My son was an innocent boy. I never let him get into any trouble. He was killed in such a way that I couldn’t even recognize his face,” she said.
There are some 30 million Shiites in Pakistan, according to an estimate by Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and former Obama administration adviser. That would make Pakistan the country with the largest Shiite population in the world after Iran. Pakistan’s total population is around 180 million.
Sunni militants have long targeted Shiites in Pakistan, but the assault intensified in 2012. I.A. Rehman, secretary general of the advocacy group, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, called the anti-Shiite violence of the last year “quite unprecedented”.
Rehman blamed the surge in violence, in part, on the creation in 2009 of a new province in northeast Pakistan, Gilgit Baltistan, which has a Shiite majority. He added that the ethnic Hazara population in Quetta, which is Shiite, “is an obstacle to what the Taliban want to do in this part of the world.”
The Hazara, a significant ethnic group in neighboring Afghanistan, also has lived in Pakistan’s Quetta region for generations. In the Hazara graveyard in Quetta, a bleak, separate section with hundreds of graves – each with a photograph of the victim – is kept for those assassinated by extremists. Many Hazara have now fled Pakistan.
Adding to the bloodshed this year has been a melding of Sunni militant death squads, which have gunned down doctors, lawyers and other educated Shiites in Karachi and Quetta, with the Pakistani Taliban, which has battled the Pakistani government for years. On Sunday, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for recent anti-Shiite bombings, saying the group “looks forward to more ahead”.
The Pakistani Taliban’s overall aims are much broader than sectarianism, with its goal being to seize power from what it sees as an “apostate” government. But it is manned by many who were first led into militancy by involvement with anti-Shiite organizations. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 stated that the Pakistani Taliban’s “foot soldiers are from SSP ranks”, referring to the Sipah-e-Sahaba group.
The Pakistani Taliban also works closely with the fiercest anti-Shiite group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which in turn has expanded its own murderous agenda to include Pakistan’s security forces. Both groups are headquartered in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region.
Since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which created a Shiite theocracy there, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have funneled money to Sunni hardliners in Pakistan as a bulwark against Iranian influence. Neighboring Iran also provides some help to Pakistan’s Shiites, who have small underground militant groups of their own.
In response to the sectarian conflict in the Middle East, those foreign channels of support in Pakistan appear to have been stepped up, said security officials, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.