MULTAN, PAKISTAN — In this Punjabi city of shrines, Shiites and Sunnis prayed side by side during Ashura this week, the holiest holiday for the world's 150 million Shiite Muslims. But a province away, suicide bombers attempted to strike Shiite processions throughout Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, leaving as many as 21 dead and more than 40 injured in three separate incidents, including two suicide attacks.
The violence, the latest in a sharp uptick against Pakistan's Shiite minority, has heightened concerns that Iraq's conflict may be feeding sectarian violence here. Whether the conflict in Iraq is capable of igniting Pakistan's simmering sectarian tensions raises questions about a growing global sectarian war.
The answer is important, analysts say, because Pakistan's 30 million Shiites – numbering more than Iraq's – could become a flash point if sectarian violence spreads.
"In Pakistan, it is not a battle like in Iraq. But in Pakistan, you have the same violence ... driving the conflict," says Vali Nasr, author of The Shia Revivial, a study of global Sunni-Shiite conflicts. "We are going to see increasing occurrences of the bombings like we've seen over the weekend." [ Editor's note: The original version incorrectly titled Vali Nasr's book.]
It is said that Shiite Islam in Pakistan began here, in this dusty corner of Punjab, more than 200 years ago. Shiites, who constitute only 20 percent of Pakistan's 165 million people, have found themselves beleaguered ever since. As many as 4,000 people are estimated to have died in sectarian fighting in Pakistan in the last two decades, 300 in the last year alone. One of the largest attacks took place here in Multan, when a car bomb killed 40 members of an extremist Sunni organization in 2004. A Shiite militant was later tried and sentenced to death for the attack.
Multan's discord closely mirrors the age-old schisms in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere which, taken together, constitute a Shiite-belt stretching from the Gulf to Pakistan.
"Will the newly empowered Shiite majority in Iraq use its power to tame its sectarian radicals like Moqtada al-Sadr and make an accommodation with the Sunni minority, or will it pursue a politics of resentment and revenge and try to impose sectarian dominance? The outcome will profoundly affect the actions of other governments and of oppressed Shiites in Pakistan and elsewhere," writes John Brenkman, an international affairs analyst at the City University of New York, in an e-mail.
Many disagree, however, saying that what happens in Iraq will hardly convulse the community in Pakistan, more concerned as it is with its own troubles.
"When you ask Pakistanis about Iraq, they identify with Iraqis – not with Shiites or Sunnis," says Samina Ahmed, the South Asia Project Director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think tank.
That is certainly the feeling of Shiites in Multan, who make up 40 percent of the city's roughly 4 million people. Sitting around plates of food together, Sunnis and Shiites insist there is no conflict among them, and that foreign powers both here and in Iraq are trying to sow discord.
Even without Iraq, though, some fear Pakistan is particularly vulnerable because of the Taliban resurgence in its backyard. "We tend only to think of [the Taliban] in terms of Afghan politics. We don't think of it as being a resurgence of a Salafi extremist force in Afghanistan. The ideological implications fall on the Shiites," says Mr. Nasr.
For some, Al Qaeda's war against Shiites has already ignited tensions in Pakistan. Editorials in leading newspapers – particularly after this week's suicide bombings – speak of a "new anti-Shiite wave that is radiating from Iraq ..." and President Pervez Musharraf has warned of the need to diffuse sectarianism "not just for the country's security, but for the entire Muslim world."
Such fears may be well grounded, even though the number of sectarian killings is down when compared with the past. In January, police investigators in Karachi announced that Al Qaeda worked with local sectarian groups to carry out some of the largest suicide attacks against sectarian targets last year, which left more than 60 dead, according to local news reports. And this past week's suicide attacks bore the signature of Al Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan, observers say.
Whether or not it spells a war emanating from Iraq, the West should pay heed, say analysts.
"People tend to dismiss the sectarian groups ... because they're not targeting you. But they always could," says Christine Fair, a South Asia counterterrorism expert at the US Institute of Peace, a Congressionally funded think tank in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Fair and others point out that extremist groups cross-pollinate: Those who attack Shiites today are the ones who attack Western targets tomorrow.
In January, Karachi investigators determined just that: A suicide attack last March, which killed an American diplomat, was carried out by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, a sectarian group working with Al Qaeda.
"They have multiple goals. It's an external jihad. It's an internal jihad," says Ahmed of ICG, adding that Pakistan and the West have to address both sides of the coin.
But, say residents in Multan, Sunnis and Shiites enjoy strong family-to-family bonds for the most part, and interfaith boards and education have helped blunt sectarianism's impact.
If there is a growing global conflict, Malik Naseem Labar, a local Sunni politician, could not see it through the throngs during Ashura this week.
"We respect [Ashura]. All these young boys – they are all Sunnis," says Mr. Labar, gesturing toward swaths of young men mingling freely with Shiites. "I am Sunni, but I am here."