QUETTA, Pakistan – Pakistan's minority Shiite Muslims have started using the word "genocide" to describe a violent spike in attacks against them by a militant Sunni group with suspected links to the country's security agencies and a mainstream political party that governs the largest province.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a group of radical Sunni Muslims, who revile Shiites as heretics, has claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks throughout Pakistan. Linked to al-Qaida, it has been declared a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S., yet it operates with relative ease in Pakistan's populous Punjab province, where Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and several other violent jihadi groups are based.
The violence against Shiites has ignited a national debate — and political arguments — about a burgeoning militancy in Pakistan. The latest attack was a massive bombing earlier this month that ripped apart a Shiite neighborhood in Pakistan's largest city of Karachi, killing 48 people, many of them as they left a mosque after saying their evening prayers. So far this year nearly 300 Shiites have been killed in devastating bombings, target killings and executions.
The unrelenting attacks also have focused the nation's attention on freedoms that Pakistani politicians give extremists groups, staggering corruption within the police and prison systems and the murky and protracted relationship between militant groups and Pakistan's military and intelligence agencies.
"The government doesn't have the will to go after them and the security agencies are littered with sympathizers who give them space to operate," Hazara Democratic Party chief Abdul Khaliq Hazara, told The Associated Press in a recent interview in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan where some of the most ferocious anti-Shiite attacks have occurred.
He labeled the killings as the "genocide of Hazaras," whom are mostly Shiites and easily identified by their Central Asian facial features.
"I have a firm belief that our security agencies have not yet decided to end all extremists groups," said Hazara. "They still want those (militants) that they think they can control and will need either in India or Afghanistan," he said referring to allegations that Pakistan uses militants as proxies against hostile India to the east and Afghanistan to the west.
The army has a history of supporting militant Islamists using them as proxies to fight in Kashmir, a region divided between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety. It is repeatedly criticized by the United States and Afghanistan for not doing enough to deny Afghan insurgents sanctuary in the tribal regions that border Afghanistan. Angry at the criticism, Pakistani army officials say they have lost more than 4,000 soldiers — more than NATO and the U.S. combined — fighting militants.
Yet, police officials in Baluchistan and the capital, Islamabad, told the AP that Pakistan's intelligence agency had ordered them to release militant leaders who had been arrested. The militants were not necessarily affiliated with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because they feared losing their jobs.
Even the judiciary has queried Pakistan's security agencies for information about their alleged ties to militants.
The Supreme Court previously ordered the intelligence agencies and the paramilitary Frontier Corp, which was given sweeping powers to track and arrest militants in Quetta, to explain accusations of their involvement in anti-Shiite attacks. The intelligence agency was told by the court to identify unregistered weapons and vehicles some of which were alleged to have been involved in suicide attacks targeting Shiites.
Still in Pakistan's most populous province of Punjab where 60 percent of the country's 180 million people live, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other militant groups move largely unrestricted.
In 2010, Punjab's Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif issued a surprising appeal to the Taliban, asking them to stop attacks in Punjab province because his government — just like the militants — opposed the dictates of the West. In a recent interview with the AP, Ahsan Iqbal, the deputy secretary general of Sharif's conservative Pakistan Muslim League, clarified his boss's comments.
"What we were saying to the Taliban at the time was 'if you are fighting the Pakistan government because they are stooges of the U.S. ... if that is your logic then why are you attacking in the Punjab because we are not stooges of the United States," he said.
The dramatic increase in sectarian violence also has spawned fierce political debate in Parliament with rivals firing volleys of accusations and counter accusations.
The ruling, liberal-leaning Pakistan People's Party has accused its conservative rival, the Pakistan Muslim League, which governs Punjab province, of patronizing radical Sunni groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. In response, Punjab parliamentarians have shot back, charging the Pakistani federal government with inaction and ineptness for failing to establish a coordinated, nationwide anti-terrorist campaign during its five years at the helm.
Iqbal says his Pakistan Muslim League has "zero tolerance" for extremists yet its provincial Law Minister last year campaigned alongside the leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi's parent organization, Sipah-e-Sahabah Pakistan, which is outlawed in Pakistan.
"It is political expediency in the Punjab that they think they need the support from the SSP in some parts for votes," said Hazara. "But the policies of these extremists will destroy political parties in Pakistan. It will destroy Pakistan."
Today, the SSP operates in Pakistan's Punjab province under a new name, Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat. It runs scores of religious schools unencumbered by government restrictions. The schools churn out students, who graduate with a loathing of Shiite Muslims, a willingness to be foot soldiers for other Sunni militant groups and ambitions of making Pakistan a radical Sunni state.
Both organizations also have links to Afghanistan's Taliban and in 2011 Lashkar-e-Jhangvi carried out an attack in Afghanistan, killing nearly 70 Shiites in a series of coordinated strikes in three Afghan cities. The attacks raised concern that insurgents wanted to further destabilize Afghanistan by adding a new and deadly sectarian flavor to the conflict already being waged between insurgents and Afghan and foreign forces.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operated militant training camps in Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule that ended in 2001, said Waliullah Rahmani, an ethnic Hazara and executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, a private think tank in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Still, Rahmani said the Afghan Taliban have not promoted sectarian violence, which might explain why there have been no other anti-Shiite attacks, Rahmani said Thursday in an interview.
Zahid Hussain, whose books plot the rise of militancy in Pakistan, linked the latest round of sectarian carnage in Baluchistan to lashkars, or tribal militias, established with the support of Pakistan's intelligence agencies to crush a burgeoning secessionist movement.
The militias, Hussain said, draw heavily from local religious schools or madrassas, which are heavily financed by donations from Gulf and Arab countries and are run by hard-line clerics with close ties to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
"That provides a deadly and unholy nexus (between) forces fighting the Baluch separatists and those waging war against the Shia community," Hussain wrote in a recent column. It also implicates Pakistan's intelligence agencies, even if indirectly, in the carnage — an allegation they deny.
In a column assailing the Punjab government's "dangerous liaisons" with militants in its province, Hussain said: "Pity the nation where the blood of innocents comes cheap and murderers live under state patronage."
Kathy Gannon is AP's special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan and can be followed on www.twitter.com/kathygannon