Pakistan steps up security ahead of Shiite festival

Interior minister promises peace during Muharram while minority sect leaders accuse government of not controlling militant factions.

Security has been lifted across Pakistan to avoid sectarian violence between majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shiite Muslims, as Shiite Muslims observe the holy month of Moharam.
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ISLAMABAD // In light of increasingly violent sectarian attacks, Pakistan is boosting security and urging tolerance to Muslim imams as the minority Shiite population prepares for one of its most important religious holidays

Tens of thousands of policemen and paramilitary troops are being deployed across the country as Shiites, who account for up to 20 per cent of Pakistan's estimated 180 million people, begin the annual 10-day mourning period that begins this week in Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar.

The event marks the killing of Imam Hussain, one of the Shiite religion's most revered personalities, in a battle in Karbala, Iraq, in 680AD. On Ashoura, the 10th day of Muharram, men march in processions across the country beating their chests and slashing their bodies with knives. This year Ashoura falls on November 25 or 26, depending on sighting of the Moon.

Sunni militants deem Ashura rituals un-Islamic and have attacked Muharram processions in the past.

This week, the interior minister, Rehman Malik, met imams from both sects to urge religious harmony in their sermons during Muharram.

"We have drawn up an elaborate security plan to maintain peace during Muharram," Mr Malik said last week after meeting imams. "The militants are trying to foment sectarian strife in the country by pitting Shiites and Sunnis against each other, but they will not succeed."

Shiites and the majority Sunni Muslims largely live in peace with each other in Pakistan but militants from both sides have killed thousands of people in tit-for-tat attacks over the past three decades. Sectarian violence intensified after Sunni militant groups deepened ties with Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents after Pakistan joined the US-led war on terrorism after the attacks on the United States in September 2001.

According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, more than 4,000 people have been killed in sectarian attacks in Pakistan since 1989. About 367 people have been killed in such attacks this year, according to the portal.

In the run-up to Muharram, sectarian attacks have increased in Karachi, the country's biggest city, and Quetta, the capital of the south-western Baluchistan province.

Last week, a Shiite imam, Allama Aftab Haider Jafri, and one of his colleagues were gunned down in Karachi.

A few days later, five students from a Sunni Muslim seminary were killed and several injured in the city when dining. On the same day, three Shiite Muslims were gunned down in Quetta.

Last month, about 20 men dressed as Pakistani soldiers boarded a bus bound for a Muslim festival outside the mountain town of Gilget, singled out 19 Shiites, drew weapons and killed them. In July, a minibus carrying Shiite Muslims hit an anti-tank landmine, killing 14 of them in what police described as a sectarian attack.

"The terrorists want to destabilise the government, they want to destabilise the country, but we will deal with them with an iron hand," Mr Malik said.

Authorities plan to deploy tens of thousands of policemen and paramilitary troops across the country to maintain security. About 125,000 policemen will be deployed in Punjab, the country's biggest province, Habibur Rehman, the provincial police chief, said in Lahore yesterday.

In Peshawar, the capital of the north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhuwa province, where militants are very active, traders have agreed to close their shops along the procession routes for the four days leading up to Ashura. In Gilgit, the northern town near the border with China, where dozens of people have been killed in sectarian violence this year, army troops will be on alert, officials said.

But some Shiite leaders are not satisfied with the government's security arrangements.

"We had concerns for our security in the past and we have concerns now as well. Killings have already started in Karachi and Quetta," said Sajid Naqvi, a Shiite imam and vice president of Milli Yakjehti Council, an alliance of Sunni and Shiite religious groups opposed to violence.

"The government has failed to control these non-state actors (militants). It seems as if the government is helpless. It cannot control them," he added.

* With additional reports from the Associated Press and Reuters