Blast Fuels Sectarian Strife in Pakistan

By Pamela Constable and Haq Nawaz Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 21, 2009

KABUL, Feb. 20 -- A suicide bomber infiltrated a funeral procession for a slain Shiite Muslim cleric Friday morning in the northwest Pakistani town of Dera Ismail Khan, killing at least 30 people and wounding scores more, police and witnesses said.

It was the latest in a string of deadly terrorist attacks against Shiite mosques and communities in northwest Pakistan, where sectarian antagonism between minority Shiites and majority Sunnis has been inflamed by the growing aggression and ambition of the Sunni extremist Taliban movement.

The suicide bombing, which turned a solemn mourning procession into a scene of strewed limbs and bloody clothing, provoked a frenzy of retaliatory violence against local Sunnis, police and witnesses said. Dozens of Sunni-owned houses and shops were burned, and security forces imposed a curfew on the area.

Residents reached by telephone Friday afternoon said the atmosphere was tense and confused, with most people hiding in their homes and large numbers of police and paramilitary forces patrolling the streets.

The bombing, which followed the assassination Thursday of a local Shiite cleric, came as national attention was focused on a controversial peace proposal by a regional government that would install strict Islamic law in another area of the volatile northwest, the Malakand district, in exchange for local Taliban forces laying down their arms.

Negotiations over the proposal continued for a second day Friday between delegations of Taliban fighters and local Islamic leaders in the Swat Valley, a tourist resort area in Malakand that has been overrun by the violent extremists. In recent months, thousands of terrified Swat residents have fled from the brutal campaign of executions, school burnings and forced bans on women's activities.

Late Friday, a Taliban leader in Swat suggested that fighters would honor a peace agreement under certain conditions. "We will not display arms if sharia is enforced in the true sense," the leader, Maulvi Muhammad Alam, said on the group's radio, according to news reports. Sharia is Islamic law.

The peace plan has aroused strong criticism inside Pakistan and in the West, where many experts and officials have warned that it would allow the Taliban to consolidate power in the northwest border region and spread its extreme religious ideology even farther into developed areas of Pakistan.

The Pakistani government "is vacillating, and it has no coherent strategy to deal with the militants. If it doesn't stop them, this could destabilize the whole country," said Mehmood Shah, a retired army brigadier and security official in the northwest. "The army has the capacity to fight them but not the will. It is still not entirely convinced that the militants are the enemy, even though they are slaughtering people."

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who endorsed the Malakand plan early in the week, has since backed off under pressure from Washington, which provides Pakistan with huge amounts of military and development aid and is pressing the government to take more aggressive action against the Islamist fighters.

But many inhabitants and leaders in Swat and other afflicted areas have said they are desperate to restore peace at any price, while regional officials of the secular Awami National Party, who proposed the agreement, say they believe it is a far more viable option than trying to defeat the militants by force.

Although Taliban representatives indicated late Friday that they might agree to the government's peace proposal, the violence in Dera Ismail Kahn appeared to be a deliberate attempt by Sunni fighters to stoke religious rage and violence rather than to reinforce efforts at peaceful reconciliation.

Khan reported from Peshawar, Pakistan.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company