- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

QUETTA, Pakistan — Shi’ite Muslims beat their chests and wailed in mourning yesterday for loved ones slain in a suicide attack during a religious procession as Pakistani and U.S. officials looked into any links between the attack and the more powerful ones that occurred in Iraq two hours earlier.

Authorities, however, said their inquiry was just beginning into the assault in Quetta that killed 43 persons, including two attackers, and injured 160.

“There is no indication so far of any link between the two attacks,” said Tasneem Noorani, the top bureaucrat at the Interior Ministry.

U.S. officials said investigators were looking into whether the attacks were coordinated, but had no evidence of that yet. Estimates of the death toll from the bombings in Iraq on Tuesday ranged from 117 to 271.

Pakistani authorities suspect that the Quetta attack was carried out by an Islamic militant group with close ties to the Taliban — and possibly al Qaeda.

A hallmark of al Qaeda is to launch multiple attacks simultaneously. The sectarian bombings in Pakistan also appeared in line with the ambitions of an al Qaeda-linked Jordanian militant, Abu Musaab Zarqawi, who has said he aims to spark a Shi’ite-Sunni civil war in Iraq.

Suspicion in the Quetta attack fell on one of Pakistan’s main Sunni militant groups, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, according to the deputy chief of police in Baluchistan province, Arif Akram.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is closely linked to the Taliban and is thought to have ties to al Qaeda. It has been implicated in the slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, as well as in numerous church and bus bombings.

The carnage began when three suspects hurled grenades and fired shots into a religious procession and then detonated grenades and explosives strapped to their bodies. Enraged Shi’ites targeted a Sunni mosque and shops in retaliatory rioting.

The bloodshed came on Ashura, a period when Islam’s Shi’ite faithful mark the death of a revered 7th-century leader by marching in black and lashing themselves in penitence.

As people gathered for the mass funeral yesterday, Shi’ite leaders delayed the ceremonies, saying they would not take the bodies to the cemetery until the provincial police chief, the head of the antiterrorism force and the city mayor are fired for security lapses.

It is normally imperative in the Muslim culture to bury the dead quickly.

Soldiers in armored personnel carriers patrolled Quetta, which remained under curfew. Nearly 60 shops stood gutted with goods scattered outside, after rioting and arson attacks.

Quetta often has been the scene of Shi’ite-Sunni clashes, including one in July in which attackers armed with machine guns and grenades stormed a Shi’ite mosque and killed 50 persons.

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