By Zia Ur Rehman

March 02-08, 2012

On February 17, 43 people were killed in a suicide attack in a market outside a mosque in Parachinar, the headquarters of Kurram Agency. Taliban commander Fazal Saeed Haqqani – who had quit the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in June and formed his own Tehrik-e-Taliban Islami (TTI) – claimed responsibility for the attack. He said the Shia Turi tribe had been targeted because it was supporting the armed forces in the ongoing military operation in Kurram region.

A victim of the February 17 Parachinar suicide bomb blast at a hospital in Peshawar

Sajid Hussain Turi, a parliamentarian from the Kurram, condemned the attack. “Sunni and Shia families who had been displaced because of the violence in the region for years had only returned home two days ago,” he told reporters.

Kurram, one of Pakistan’s seven tribal agencies, borders Khost, Paktia and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan, and Khyber, Orakzai and North Waziristan agencies in Pakistan. Kurram is the only tribal agency with a significant Shia population, and violence in the agency has been fuelled by sectarian tensions. Around 40 percent of Kurram’s inhabitants are Shia. Upper Kurram is inhabited largely by the Turi tribe – the only Pashtun tribe which is wholly Shia – while central and lower Kurram are inhabited by Sunnis, mostly Bangash.

“Increasing sectarianism in Hangu, Kohat and DI Khan districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Kurram and Orakzai agencies of FATA, is a result of the growing Taliban influence and the recent arrival of Punjabi Sunni militants,” said Mariam Abou Zahab, a Paris-based security expert who studies sectarianism in Pakistan.

There are longstanding disputes over ownership of forests, hills, land and water resources between Sunni and Shia tribes in Kurram, and sporadic incidents of communal violence have taken place since the 1930s, particularly during Muharram or Nowruz. Sunnis have consistently demanded a ban on Nowruz celebrations which they consider unIslamic, said Abou Zahab. “Many argue that there was no Sunni-Shia problem historically, and tribal rivalries were given a sectarian colour in the heat of the moment. Clashes were often over petty disputes. For instance, the riots that erupted in Parachinar in 1973 were sparked by a row over the height of the minarets of the main Sunni mosque and Shia Imambargah.”

Troops patrol a road in Parachinar

But the nature and dimensions of the sectarian conflict have changed since 2001. “Kurram has become strategically important once again because it shares a border with key Afghan provinces and has a relatively large Afghan refugee population,” Abu Zahab said. “The conflict is not tribal or sectarian per se, but instigated by the Taliban who want access to Afghanistan and are supported by local criminals. They use tribal and sectarian differences to fuel the conflict and keep the government out.”

The situation has worsened since 2006, with the emergence of new Taliban groups in South and North Waziristan, Orakzai and Khyber, said Aqeel Yousafzai, a Peshawar-based security expert and author. More than 3,500 people have been killed, 50 villages burned and thousands of people displaced in sectarian clashes in Kurram between 2007 and 2011.

Shia tribes have blamed Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups for the violence, and also accused Pakistani security agencies of supporting the Sunni militants. Sunnis have alleged Shia militants are armed and funded by Iran.

The TTP, the Orakzai Taliban and the Afridi Taliban have killed hundreds of people, both Shia and Sunni, in the last few years. In October 2007, Baitullah Mehsud – who was heading the TTP – sent a group of 400 Mehsud militants to Kurram. The militia was led by Qari Hussain, a notorious anti-Shia commander who burned down several villages and killed dozens of Shias. Two months later, he returned to South Waziristan and was replaced by Faqir Alam Mehsud and his men. “Reputed for his brutality, Faqir Alam Mehsud personally beheaded at least 100 Shias from Kurram, and several Sunnis accused of cooperating with the Shias,” according to a Taliban militant who had fought under his command.

Orakzai Taliban chief Mullah Noor Jamal (aka Mullah Toofan), Afridi militant groups including Tariq Afridi’s TTP Darra Adam Khel, Mangal Bagh’s Laskhar-e-Islam and Haji Mehboob’s Ansarul Islam, also sent hundreds of militants to Kurram to fights against Shias. The area has also been a sanctuary for militants from the Punjabi Sunni extremist groups banned in 2002.

The only known Shia militant group is the Mehdi Militia (sometimes called the Haideri Taliban), consisting mainly of Turi tribesmen. “The group has large public support among Shias in Kurram and is concentrated in the upper Kurram area of Parchinar and Ziayran,” according to a report published by Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS). Their opponents say the group is supported by allies in Iran and Afghanistan.

Although Shia militants have also killed tribesmen from the rival Sunni tribes, security analysts believe the group was set up to defend the Shia population and cannot match the Taliban in manpower and logistics.

Shia tribal elders say they are being attacked because they stop the Taliban from entering Afghanistan. They allege elements linked with Pakistan’s military establishment support some Taliban groups because of the strategic importance of the region. The allegations cannot be verified.

Hamid Raza Bangash, an activist and author of Hangu and the Bangash Tribe, said the Thal-Parachinar road connecting Kurram with Peshawar, had remained closed for five years, and Shia tribesmen had no option but to use the road which goes through the Afghan provinces of Logar, Kabul and Nangarhar.

The region also became strategically important for Al Qaeda-linked groups like the TTP and the Haqqani Network after an increase in the number of drone strikes, analysts say. “At the behest of Al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, the Taliban want to capture the Khewas area of Upper Kurram where it is believed that the GPRS system of US drones doesn’t work properly,” Bangash said.

Shia elders say foreign militants had also been seen operating in the area. Aslanov Zaur, an Al Qaeda-linked Azerbaijani, was killed in Jogi area of Kurram in clashes with Pakistani security forces in the second week of February.

Analysts see the defection of a key TTP leader to form his own TTI as a move orchestrated by the Haqqanis and their allies in Pakistan who are focused on solely carrying out attacks against the US forces in Afghanistan. “I repeatedly told the leadership council of the TTP that they should stop suicide attacks on mosques, markets and other civilian targets,” Fazal Saeed told AFP at time of his defection. He likened what the TTP does in Pakistan to “what US troops are doing in Afghanistan” and vowed to continue the fight against the Americans alone.

The Pakistani military has not targeted Fazal Saeed or the TTI during its operation in Kurram so far, Shia elders complain. After he claimed responsibility for the February 17 bombing in Parachinar, political authorities demolished three houses of Fazal Saeed and his relatives in Ochat village in Lower Kurram.

Tribal elders from both sides say that after years of clashes, beheadings, suicide attacks, killings, abductions, and military operations, the people only want peace.