- Associated Press - Sunday, December 16, 2012

KARACHI, Pakistan — Bodies are piling up in Pakistan’s largest city as it suffers one of its most violent years in history, and concern is growing that the chaos is giving greater cover for the Taliban to operate and undermining the country’s economic epicenter.

Karachi, a sprawling port city on the Arabian Sea, has long been beset by religious, sectarian and ethnic strife.

Here, armed wings of political parties battle for control of the city, Sunnis and Shiites die in tit-for-tat sectarian killings, and Taliban gunmen attack banks and kill police officers. With an election due next year, the violence could easily worsen.

According to the Citizens’ Police Liaison Committee, a civic group that works with police to fight crime, the violence has claimed 1,938 lives as of late November, the deadliest year since 1994, when the CPLC began collecting figures. Police tallies put the dead at 1,897 through mid-October.

The Taliban seem to be taking advantage of the chaos to expand their presence in the city, a safe distance from areas of Pakistani army operations and U.S. drone strikes.

During recent Supreme Court hearings, judges ordered authorities to investigate reports that as many as 8,000 Taliban members were in the city.

Security officials say the Taliban raise money in Karachi through bank and ATM robberies, kidnappings and extortion, and are recruiting as well.

The head of the city’s Central Investigation Department, Chaudhry Aslam, who is tasked with tracking down militants, said the Taliban have killed at least 24 of his officers this year.

Citizens are often caught in the middle.

Samina Waseem says her son Aatir, 21, went out on May 22 to get his phone fixed. Three days later she found his body in the morgue with a gunshot wound through his head.

She is convinced he was killed because he belonged to the Mohajir community, descended from people who moved from India to newly created Pakistan when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947.

Part of Karachi’s problem is that since 1947 its population has mushroomed from 435,000 to 18 million.

The metropolis ranges from the high-end neighborhoods of Clifton, where people live behind bougainvillea-covered walls and eat arugula and fig salads at posh restaurants, to concrete block houses on the dusty outskirts. There, migrants move in from the rugged northwest, where the U.S. is waging its war with the Taliban, and from the flood-prone plains of Sindh.

That population growth is marked by spurts of violence.

Currently, the overarching struggle appears to be between two powerful forces. One is the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the city’s dominant force, which represents Urdu-speaking Mohajirs. The other is the Awami National Party (ANP). It represents Pashtuns whose numbers are increasing as their ethnic kin flee the northwest.

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