Sacred Shi'ite ritual tests Pakistan's security resolve

Pakistan is deploying tens of thousands of paramilitary soldiers and police ahead of a religious festival that could be a major security test for authorities struggling to contain militant violence.

Many of Pakistan’s minority Shi’ite Muslims, who make up 15% of the population, will be vulnerable to suicide bombings when they stage large rallies on Friday to mark Ashura, the biggest event in their calendar.

Highlighting concerns, paramilitary forces carry people away on stretchers in mock exercises televised live. Officials say army soldiers will be on standby.

Recent suicide bombings carried out in defiance of a series of military offensives which the government describe as successful highlighted US ally Pakistan’s instability.

“Ashura is going to be very tense. There is a danger of terrorists trying to attack processions.
We are taking all possible measures to avert that,” a senior security official said.

Blood has spilled between Pakistan’s majority Sunni and minority Shi’ite militants for decades.

Sectarian strife has intensified since Sunni militants deepened ties with al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban insurgents after Pakistan joined the US-led campaign against militancy after the September 11 attacks.

The two Muslim communities generally live in harmony but tension tends to rise during Ashura.

During the event, Shi’ite mourners beat themselves with steel-tipped flails or slash their bodies with knives to mark the death anniversary of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed during a battle in AD 680 in Kerbala, a city in modern-day Iraq.

Sunni militants deem the ritual un-Islamic.

Ashura has become a lightning rod for sectarian violence in Pakistan, a country of 170-million people suffering from political turbulence, rampant corruption, poverty and a history of uneasy ties between the military and civilian governments.

‘Religious duties’
Last year, a suicide bomber blew up an Ashura procession in Pakistan’s biggest city of Karachi, killing 25 mourners. About 6 500 policemen are being deployed in the commercial hub.

Fourteen people were killed in the north-western town of Hangu last week when a suicide bomber rammed a tractor laden with explosives into a hospital owned by Shi’ites.

“They take all these precautions every year but they have not been able to control terrorists. We can’t sit at home. I have to perform my religious duties and that’s why I am going to rally,” said 50-year-old Mureed Hussain, wearing traditional Ashura mourning clothes of black, baggy trousers and tunic.

Like others, he and his two children had to pass through a metal detector on the way to a Shi’ite rally.

Paramilitary soldiers and policemen in armoured vehicles have cordoned roads leading to the rally in central Islamabad.

Ejaz Khan, a senior police official in the main north-western city of Peshawar, said nearly 4 000 policemen were being deployed there, backed by paramilitary forces.

“The terrorists may try to breach the security cordon around the city but we are on a high alert,” he told Reuters.

He said central parts of the city would effectively be “sealed” and shops and markets along procession routes have been closed. Motorcycles, sometimes used by bombers in attacks, have been banned in parts of the north-west until Ashura ends.

Some Shi’ites say security measures may just deepen fear. Like many Pakistanis of all sects, they want long-term security guarantees, something foreign investors who may see opportunities in the South Asian country also hope for.

“The government should effectively crack down on terrorists and expose their supporters and backers instead of causing harassment to the general public,” said Sajid Ali Naqvi, a Shi’ite leader. - Reuters

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