Bomb attack raises prospects of religious civil war

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 January, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 January, 1997, 12:00am

The deadly weekend bomb attack in Lahore has raised the spectre of a religious civil war which threatens to tear apart Pakistani society as the country prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of its founding.

The bombing is not an isolated terrorist action.

Rival Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim militants have been locked in a fierce armed battle for several years.

Most of the victims have been innocent Muslims caught in the firing line while worshipping in mosques - the favourite targets for the groups' tit-for-tat killings.

The Lahore bombing, however, is the worst single incident of religious violence and its fallout might be far greater, as its targets appear to have been the leaders of the Sunni militant Sipah-i-Sahaba organisation.

These men - Ziaur Rehman Farooqi, who was killed, and Azem Tariq, who lost both legs in the blast - were allegedly involved in the murders of Shi'ite leaders, and the attack was clearly a revenge killing.

A deep sense of fear grips the Punjab today. No one knows where and when the next killings will occur.

What has made the situation dangerous is that the rival Muslim militants are well armed and trained.

Sunni militants are believed to receive money from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries, while the Shi'ite extremist organisations have strong backers in neighbouring Iran.

Most observers agree these longstanding rivals are fighting a proxy war on the streets of Pakistan.

Yesterday's violent demonstration against Iran in Lahore is a clear indication of the perceived foreign involvement in the killings.

The rise of these militant religious organisations began in the 1980s during the long war between Iraq and Iran. Concerned with the growing stridency of Shi'ite groups, the Arab countries started pouring money into Sunni organisations.

There was a mushrooming of madressas - religious schools - whose students provided recruits for today's religious war.

The Afghan jihad against the Soviet forces provided the religious zealots with an opportunity to get military training.

Security officials declare the rising sectarian conflict as the main threat to the country's unity and integrity.

Political and religious compulsions prevent political leaders taking any bold stand to counter the growing menace.