(Photo: Shi’ite men at an Ashura procession in Peshawar, January 19, 2008/Ali Imam)
Pakistan is deploying tens of thousands of paramilitary soldiers and police ahead of a religious festival that could be a major security test for authorities struggling to contain militant violence. Many of Pakistan’s minority Shi’ite Muslims, who make up 15 percent of the population, will be vulnerable to suicide bombings when they stage large rallies Friday to mark Ashura, the biggest event in their calendar.
Highlighting concerns, paramilitary forces carry people away on stretchers in mock exercises televised live. Officials say army soldiers will be on standby. Recent suicide bombings carried out in defiance of a series of military offensives which the government describe as successful highlighted U.S. ally Pakistan’s instability.
“Ashura is going to be very tense. There is a danger of terrorists trying to attack processions. We are taking all possible measures to avert that,” a senior security official said.
Blood has spilled between Pakistan’s majority Sunni and minority Shi’ite militants for decades. Sectarian strife has intensified since Sunni militants deepened ties with al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban insurgents after Pakistan joined the U.S.-led campaign against militancy after the September 11 attacks.
Ashura has become a lightning rod for sectarian violence in Pakistan. During the event, Shi’ite mourners beat themselves with steel-tipped flails or slash their bodies with knives to mark the death anniversary of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, who was killed during a battle in A.D. 680 in Kerbala, a city in modern-day Iraq. Sunni militants deem the ritual un-Islamic.