November 19, 2007
by B. Raman
"Al Qaeda is trying to replicate Iraq in Pakistan by exacerbating the already existing divide between the Shias and the Sunnis in the civil society as well as in the Army." --- Extract from my earlier paper of November 15, 2007, titled "The State of Jihadi Terrorism in Pakistan" at http://www.saag.org/papers25/paper2459.html
Till 1977, the Shias were in a preponderant majority in the Kurram Agency in Pakistan's Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on its border with Afghanistan and in the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) of Jammu and Kashmir, which is presently under Pakistani occupation.
2. After the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February, 1979, there was a radicalisation of the Shias of these areas. They started demanding the creation of a separate Shia majority province to be called the Karakoram Province, consisting of the Kurram Agency, the Northern Areas and other contiguous Shia majority areas. The leadership of this movement came mainly from the Turi tribe of the Kurram Agency. The movement was allegedly funded by the Iranian intelligence.
3. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq put down this movement ruthlessly. He also started a policy of re-settling the Sunnis in these areas in order to control the Shias and dilute their preponderant majority. While Sunni ex-servicemen from other parts of Pakistan were re-settled in the Northern Areas, Afghan Sunni refugees from the refugee camps were re-settled in the Kurram Agency. This led to widespread resentment among the Shias against the Government as well as the Sunni settlers. The Iraqi intelligence too allegedly funded these Sunni settlers in the Kurram Agency to enable them to fight the radical Shias.
4. There were serious riots in Gilgit in 1988 which were ruthlessly put down by Zia with the help of a combined force of Sunni tribals and Arabs led by Osama bin Laden. Hundreds of Shias were killed. It is generally believed that the anger caused by this massacre contributed to the death of Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash in August 1988. Enquiries into the crash reportedly brought out that the crash took place when a Shia airman belonging to Gilgit released tear-smoke or some other gas in the cockpit, thereby disorienting the crew.
5. The Kurram Agency has also been the scene of frequent Shia-Sunni clashes, with most of the attacks by the Shias directed against the Afghan and Pakistani Sunni settlers brought in by Zia. There were three major Shia-Sunni clashes in the Agency in 1983, 1988 and 1996, which resulted in the deaths of a total of 1,200 persons belonging to both the sects.
6. There was a recrudescence of the violence in April, 2007, after a gap of 11 years. For nearly three weeks from April 6, 2007, the Kurram Agency became the scene of a no-holds barred jihad waged by the local Shias and Sunnis against each other following an incident of firing allegedly by the Shias on a procession taken out by the Sunnis to mark the Holy Prophet's birthday. The local adherents of the two sects of Islam used not only small arms and ammunition, but also mortars and rocket-launchers against each other, resulting in heavy casualties. The clashes initially started in Parachinar, the capital of the Agency. It then spread to the interior areas. The imposition of a curfew by the Pakistani authorities and severe action against the local leaders and volunteers of the two sects ultimately restored an uneasy normalcy. The Pakistan Army extensively used helicopter gunships to put down the violence.
7. There were conflicting figures of the fatalities inflicted by the two sects against each other and by the security forces on the warring sects. While the Pakistani authorities estimated the total number of fatalities as around 50, non-Governmental sources estimated that at least 80 persons died in the violence.
8. During the clashes of April, 2007, the local leaders of the two sects accused the Pakistani Army of siding with the other sect. Some Sunni leaders also accused Iran of fomenting the Shia attacks against the Sunnis in order to teach Pakistan a lesson for allegedly allowing the USA's Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to use the Pakistani territory for destabilisation operations against Iran.
9. Addressing the media at the Peshawar Press Club on April 9, 2007, Mast Gul, a Sunni jihadi leader, alleged that since April 6, 2007, Shias had killed hundreds of innocent Sunnis. According to him, just on one day about 28 Sunni women and children were slaughtered in the Kurram Agency. He accused Iran of providing financial resources and weapons to the Shias in the Agency. He also alleged that Iran had given shelter to Baloch nationalist leaders and was helping them. He warned the Pakistan Army that if it did not take effective action against the Shias, he would appeal to the Sunnis in the other parts of Pakistan and in Jammu and Kashmir to come to Kurram and help the local Sunnis.
10. Mast Gul used to belong to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), which is a founding member of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF) formed in 1998. He used to operate in J&K till 1995. He and his followers were responsible for the burning down of the Islamic holy shrine at Charar-e-Sharief in J&K in 1995.
11. Since violence instigated by Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda Sunni tribal elements escalated in South and North Waziristan in October, 2007, there were reports of fresh tension in the Kurram Agency in the wake of reports that the jihadi terrorists loyal to Osama bin Laden were targeting the Shia members of the Frontier Constabulary and the Frontier Corps deployed in these two Agencies. It was alleged that while the terrorists brutally killed the captured Shia soldiers, they let free the Sunnis. Some of the Shias beheaded by the terrorists belonged to the predominantly Shia tribe of Turis in the Kurram Agency. Some Shia leaders of the civil society in these two agencies were also targeted by pro-Al Qaeda elements and killed.
13. These incidents have led to a fresh outbreak of violence between the Shias and the Sunnis in the Kurram Agency since the night of November 15, 2007. Despite the imposition of a curfew by the Pakistani authorities and the use of helicopter gunships to quell the riots, violence continued for the fourt consecutive day on November 19, 2007. It has been reported that the fighting has been more fierce than in April, 2007, and that about 100 persons, including 11 members of the para-military forces, have already died in the violence.
14. Police sources suspect that the fresh violence has been engineered by Al Qaeda in order to divert the attention of the Pakistan army from its on-going operations against the jihadis in the Swat Valley.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com)
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