- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 29, 2010

KARACHI, Pakistan | Asif Raza and his brother were killed days apart and in the same manner: gunned down on the streets of Pakistan’s largest city. Their relatives insist they were targeted by Sunni extremists only because they were Shiites.

Around the same time, Rizwan Qadri, a Sunni, was killed when he stopped by a betel leaf shop on his way home. His killers are presumed to be either Shiite extremists or members of a powerful political party that has been linked to many deaths in the city.

Close to half of the 600 murders reported so far this year in the economic hub of Karachi have been “target killings,” slayings carried out by religious groups and gangs affiliated with political parties. That’s roughly double the number that occurred in all of 2009.

The surge is symptomatic of the lawlessness that has long plagued this teeming southern port city of 18 million, where police are ineffectual, religious tensions run high and politicians exploit ethnic divides.

But the uptick in violence is particularly worrying these days as it is a reflection of the problems that plague Pakistan in general, where a weak government is often no match for the volatile mix of ethnicities and religious sects that compete for power and loyalty.

“Successive political governments with conflicting political interests, fragile policies and weak political determination and will were not able to deal with the cancerous disease of sectarianism, ethnicity and the mafias,” Imtiaz Ahmed, a former intelligence chief, said of Karachi’s problems.

In Pakistan, though, an increase in urban crime is never just a local problem.

The city’s chaos provides cover for the growing number of Taliban and al Qaeda militants looking for a hideout beyond the northwest tribal regions under siege by army operations and U.S. missile strikes. The Taliban’s No. 2 leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, was arrested in Karachi in February, and other members of the militant group’s top leadership council are believed to spend time in the city.

It also is threatening to undercut confidence in the U.S.-allied government bogged down in a war against those Islamist extremists.

Asif Raza, a 37-year-old accountant, was killed on June 11 as he traveled to work. He had promised his 11-year-old son he would buy him a new BMX bicycle on his return, according to his widow, Shagufta, who could barely speak because of her tears.

“The killers are the enemies of the Shiites,” said Syed Ali Raza, another of Asif’s brothers. “We wonder about our survival and how we get back to our homes safe and secure in the evening.”

Police have lodged a case alleging unknown assailants were behind the attack, but the family has no hope for justice.

On the same day, in another corner of this crowded city where millions live in slums, Mr. Qadri was gunned down. He was a member of Sunni Tehreek, a moderate Sunni group that is not believed to have links to extremism.

Members of the group have been targeted in the past by both Shiite extremists and members of the Muttahida Quami Movement, the most powerful political party in Karachi.

Mr. Qadri’s death underlines the difficulty of tracing the cause of many killings in Karachi, where sectarian and political tensions, as well as criminal impulses, all fuel violence. The only thing that binds the deaths is the inability or unwillingness of authorities to stop them.

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