Shia Slaughter

Shia Slaughter

The protests by the Hazara Shia community in Quetta, Balochistan came to an end Tuesday when Islamabad promised to launch "targeted" operations against Sunni extremist groups.

But there is little hope that the Pakistan army is prepared to confront the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi that has launched repeated and brazen murderous assaults on the Shia in Quetta and beyond.

This year alone more than 200 Shia in Quetta died in these attacks. In January, the suicide bombing of a snooker hall in Quetta killed 93 and injured nearly 200 people. When the Shia refused to bury the dead until Quetta was handed over to the army, Islamabad responded by dismissing the regional government and imposing governor's rule.

Last Sunday, in a terror blast at a busy market in Quetta, 89 Shia were killed and nearly 100 injured. The LeJ claimed credit for the attack. The Shia took to the streets again, as the governor of the province blamed the law enforcement agencies for "being too scared or clueless".

In their talks with the Shia leaders in Quetta, the government claimed that it has "detained" nearly 170 suspects and that there will be "targeted" operations against the LeJ with the help of the army.

Although the protests have ended, the violent sectarian extremism of the LeJ has thrived amidst the permissive political environment in Pakistan that has turned a blind eye to the mounting attacks on sectarian Muslim minorities as well as the Hindu minority.

Pakistan's army and intelligence agencies have a huge presence in Quetta, from where they conduct the campaign against a separatist insurgency by the Baloch nationalists, keep a close eye on Afghan groups that enjoy its patronage, and monitor the turbulent border with Iran.

The security forces, including the army, do not consider Sunni extremist groups like the LeJ as "anti-state" and have been willing to live with its excesses. Their current focus is on countering groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that have confronted the military in Pakistan.

The LeJ was banned more than a decade ago under American pressure on Pakistan following the 9/11 attacks on the US. But the group operates openly in Pakistan under the very nose of the security forces.

Bahrain Trouble

The deepening tension between Shia and Sunni is not limited to Pakistan and has enveloped the Arabian Peninsula. From Bahrain in the east to Syria in the north, the conflict has enveloped most other faultlines within and across the region.

Bahrain marked the second anniversary of the uprising two years ago for political reform with renewed clashes between security forces and protesters. What started out as a non-sectarian movement for democratic change soon became a conflict between the Sunni monarchy and the Shia majority. The Shia constitute nearly 70 per cent of the population and complain about their condition as a virtual underclass.

Bahrain's internal conflict acquired a regional dimension as the Sunni monarchy blamed Iran for fomenting the rebellion and invited a military intervention led by Saudi Arabia. Attempts to find reconciliation between the Sunni minority regime and the Shia majority appear to be breaking down amidst the renewed violence.

Iraq and Syria

As the Shia in Bahrain fight for majority rights, the recently empowered Shia majority in Iraq has big problems finding peace with the Sunni minority.

Until the American military intervention to oust the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, a Sunni minority ruled over the Shia majority and marginalised the ethnic Kurds.

There was much hope that Iraq would ensure the rights of minorities in the new democratic framework. But those hopes have been dashed amidst growing conflict between Shia and Sunni.

The difficulties of the young democracy in Iraq to finding a balance between redressing historic injustices and protecting minority rights has been exacerbated by the

Shia-Sunni conflict in Syria.

While the Shia of Iraq have no empathy for Bashar

al-Assad, they deeply fear the consequences of the collapse of his minority regime led by the Alawites, a variant of Shia Islam.

The Sunni dissidents in Iraq meanwhile are being drawn into a deeper embrace with Assad's opponents, who claim to speak on behalf of the oppressed Sunni majority in Syria.

With Sunni Turkey opposing Assad and Shia Iran supporting him, it has become difficult to separate the regional conflicts from the sectarian divide.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

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