KARACHI, Pakistan — On the fearful advice of his father, 20-year-old Hussain Buksh recently fled this violent port city for Lahore, a calmer northern metropolis where Shiite Muslims like him are less likely to be assassinated for their beliefs. Last week, the soft-featured young man came back here to bury his father, one of at least 50 people killed when a truck packed with explosives detonated in the family’s mainly Shiite neighborhood.
The blast was presumed to be the work of Sunni radicals who since last year have accelerated attacks on members of Pakistan’s Shiite minority — whom they consider apostates — into a war of unrelenting tempo. This year’s violence includes bombings that killed nearly 200 people in Shiite enclaves in the city of Quetta, raising serious questions about the government’s ability to provide security and the destabilizing impact of deepening intolerance on Pakistan’s feeble democracy.
The bloodshed is likely to increase as the nation heads into parliamentary elections, expected to be held in two months, that would bring the first democratic transition in Pakistan’s 65-year history. Experts say al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban militants have allied with anti-Shiite extremists and are finding new opportunities to step up attacks.
“It is quite precarious,” said Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “The state writ has unraveled, and the military doesn’t seem able to put the lid on things as they could in the past.”
The Pakistani army says it is tied down fighting the Taliban in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and has resisted Shiites’ calls for interventions in Quetta, in southwestern Baluchistan province, and Karachi, the nation’s financial hub and most populous city.
The latest bombing, however, stirred Pakistan’s two most powerful men — Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry and the army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani — to step bluntly into the void left by local and national civilian leadership.
As soon as Chaudhry convened hearings in Karachi, the top provincial police official was sacked. Kayani, citing the alarm of his nationwide commanders, publicly chided President Asif Ali Zardari over the deteriorating security situation in Karachi and Quetta.
The carnage in Karachi’s Abbas Town, as the Shiite section is known, brought the usual denunciations from political leaders but no concrete action, in a repeat of the official indifference shown to the Quetta victims until they refused to bury their dead and mounted massive demonstrations across the country.
Five days after the Karachi blast, Zardari, who had been in the city all week, issued a statement condemning the “barbaric incident,” offering financial support for victims’ families and vowing to hunt down the attackers.
It was of little comfort to families in the Shiite neighborhood here, still littered several days after the blast with charred motorbikes and pages from children’s lesson books. Their disgust at local and national leaders could not be more palpable.
“They don’t care about the Shia,” said Buksh, crouched with his three sisters and mother on the floor of their small cinder-block home a few blocks from the blast crater. His father, Mohammad Akram, 50, died while going to buy milk for his youngest daughter, his family said. He was a driver for an industrial development ministry.
“No head of state or official from the province has come to express condolences,” said his widow, Kausar Perven, as she looked tearfully at 25-year-old pictures from her wedding. “Nothing they do is for the people.”
Fatal attacks against Shiites, who make up about 20 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people, have risen and fallen for years. But 2012 was the deadliest on record, according to Human Rights Watch, which says more than 400 Shiites were killed; the toll for this year has already hit at least 250. Militants have recently focused the killings on ethnic Hazara Shiites in Baluchistan, who have fled the province by the thousands.
For decades, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, backed by Saudi Arabia, groomed Sunni extremists to offset any threat by Shiite Iran and also to wage attacks against India. Many Shiites today subscribe to the widely held belief that the Pakistani intelligence services protect Sunni extremists, including the al-Qaeda-allied Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian militant group that has asserted responsibility for numerous sectarian attacks in Pakistan, including the recent Quetta blasts.
Pakistan officially banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in 2001 and the military denies any links to the group, but security forces have done little to crack down on it. One popular conspiracy theory holds that an omnipotent military “establishment” that is disgusted by Pakistan’s civilian government is seeking to sow chaos and postpone elections.
“These generals want to extend their control in this country and they need the blood of Pakistanis for their goals,” thundered Raja Nasir Abbas Jafari, a burly, white-turbaned Shiite party leader in Karachi. “These terrorists are their strategic assets.”
Experts cite an array of factors for the spike in attacks. In Quetta, for example, ethnic Baluchis who simply hate Hazaras are thought to have allied in convenience with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. And anti-terrorism coordination among provincial and federal governments and the military is deficient.
“The sectarian outfits’ attacks are not because the elections are near,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, a terrorism expert who heads the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. “It is because the focus of the security forces has been on the insurgency. This opened opportunities for these outfits to plan and carry out attacks.”
A caretaker government is set to take over March 17, when the current government completes its five-year term. An interim administration will rule for two months, and during this period the government will be at its weakest, but few experts expect that rising violence will delay elections.
Pakistan’s military leadership says its goal is to foster democracy by securing the country against terrorism — including providing protection for the upcoming elections.
Kayani offered the civilian government support for a crackdown on terrorists as well the political party militants and criminal gangs that run rampant in Karachi, said a military official who is not authorized to brief the media. But the top general also stressed that “it’s the government’s decision whether it wants the army to play any role in Karachi or not,” the official said.
A city of nearly 20 million, Karachi is a cauldron that distills all the nation’s ethnic, regional, political and religious poisons — the hatreds that prevent many Pakistanis from espousing a unified national identity. The city has been on the boil for decades, often spilling over with extensive bloodletting among various factions.
The blast in Abbas Town, which propelled body parts onto the rooftops of five-story apartments, also has reverberated among the wealthy and the intelligentsia. They say that unrelenting violence — not just here but in the militant-besieged tribal belt — discourages global investors and accelerates capital flight and brain drain.
“It is a lawless land,” said Taymur Mirza, owner and headmaster of the International School, which caters to children of Karachi’s upper crust. “What investors are waiting for is safety and security.”
In some quarters, the instability has prompted fond memories of dictatorship. “The people want the army back,” Mirza added flatly.
The street where the bombing took place is named after Abul Hassan Ispahani, Pakistan’s first ambassador to the United States after the Muslim nation’s creation in 1947. Ispahani was a key loyalist of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who espoused religious tolerance.
A catering outfit, a grocery store and a gift shop were among the businesses shredded into heaps of corrugated iron in the explosion. Many were owned or staffed by Sunnis, at least 20 of whom died, residents said.
A Sunni cleric named Birjees Ahmed, acting Karachi head of the right-wing Jamat-e-Islami party, showed up a few days later with a black-turbaned delegation to extend condolences and offer relief supplies. His theory about the attack?
“It’s a conspiracy to postpone the elections and create rifts among the Muslim community,” Ahmed quickly answered. And the conspirators?
“America, Israel and India,” he said, turning up his palms as if to indicate the obvious.
No group has asserted responsibility for the Abbas Town bombing. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Punjabi Taliban are chief among the suspected perpetrators, but police have announced no breakthroughs.
That does not surprise the family of Mohammad Akram, who rage against shadowy enemies as they mourn.
“They want to kill us,” Buksh said. “But they will not succeed.”