KABUL, Afghanistan — At least 55 people were killed and scores wounded Tuesday in a suicide attack that targeted Shiite Muslim worshippers in Kabul, raising the specter of sectarian violence even as the United States searches for a way out of the Afghan war.
The strike, reportedly carried out by an obscure Pakistani extremist group with ties to the Taliban, was the first major attack on Afghanistan's Shiite minority of the decade-long war. It occurred on Ashoura, the holiest day of the Shiite calendar, as worshippers were commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in the seventh century.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al Almi, a breakaway faction of the well-known Pakistani militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, claimed responsibility in a phone call to Radio Mashaal, a Pashto-language station set up by Radio Free Europe. Pashto is spoken in northwest Pakistan and southern Afghanistan, and it's the language of the Taliban.
The faction, which isn't thought to have attacked in Afghanistan before, previously was known for kidnapping two former Pakistani spies and a British journalist in Pakistan's tribal area. The spies, including Col. Imam, known as the godfather of the Taliban, later were killed.
Afghanistan's Shiites are mostly members of the Hazara ethnic minority, which suffered brutal discrimination at the hands of the Taliban government that ruled the country before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The attacks came as representatives from the United States and some 90 other nations and organizations concluded a meeting in Germany about the transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces, which are due to take full control of the country by 2014.
"An attack against Ashoura pilgrims on one of the holiest of days in the Islamic calendar is an attack against Islam itself, and we denounce and condemn these atrocities in the strongest of terms," said Gen. John R. Allen, the commander of the U.S.-led coalition, known as the International Security Assistance Force.
The Taliban also condemned the blast in a statement, saying, "This is part of a plot by the enemies of Islam and Afghanistan."
Two other bombs struck shortly after the Kabul attack. A bomb on a bicycle exploded in the usually peaceful northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, killing four civilians and wounding 16, according to Afghan officials. Six people were wounded in the southern city of Kandahar when a bomb in a motorbike went off.
It wasn't immediately clear whether the blasts were coordinated.
The attack in Kabul took place around noon at Abul Fazl Abbas shrine, near the presidential palace. Hundreds of Shiites were flagellating themselves to mark Imam Hussein's death, but they scattered when the bomb exploded.
"The bomber was hiding in the last group" of worshippers, said Ayub Salangi, the Kabul police chief.
A McClatchy correspondent who witnessed the explosion saw a body that had lost a leg. Mourners were screaming for help. Women and children were among the dead and wounded. Ambulances and police vehicles rushed the victims to nearby hospitals.
One woman, seriously wounded on the blood-soaked blast site, was very pale, as was the baby she carried, who appeared to be dead.
Ahmad Shamim, an 18-year-old worshipper who was being treated for his wounds in Wazir Akbar Khan hospital, said, "I heard an explosion and lost consciousness. I don't know what happened afterward. When I woke up, I found myself in the hospital."
Afghan security forces cordoned off the area but clashed with mourners. One wounded man spoke angrily to a security officer, saying they'd come too late. Victims and their relatives cursed African President Hamid Karzai and the government of Pakistan, where some Afghan insurgent leaders reportedly are based.
"The enemies of religion, our soil and homeland did this act," said Abdul Wali, 37, whose cousin, a vegetable vendor, was killed in the blast. Wali was waiting outside the Kabul military hospital to retrieve his cousin's body.
"There is no justification for such an inhuman, un-Islamic and unforgivable act, which was carried out by enemies of Islam and Afghanistan," said Mufti Shams Frotan, an Afghan religious scholar.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al Almi is a small faction based in Pakistan's tribal area. It's considered an even more radical offshoot of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a murderous anti-Shiite group founded in 1996. Both groups act as surrogates for al Qaida.
From its start as a sectarian organization, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has taken on the broader jihadist agenda of al Qaida and it works closely with the Pakistani Taliban, who also have roots in anti-Shiite violence.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was the training ground for the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud, and it operated training camps in Afghanistan during the Taliban regime. The organization is thought to be behind the December 2009 bombing of a Shiite procession in the Pakistani city of Karachi, which killed more than 30 people.
The parent organization also is thought to have staged some of the most audacious attacks in Pakistan, including the September 2008 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad and an armed assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009. The group claimed responsibility for the massacre in September of 29 Shiite bus passengers, in Pakistan's Baluchistan province, who were going on a pilgrimage to Iran.
(Safi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Saeed Shah contributed to this article from Islamabad.)
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