- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

ISLAMABAD | A suicide bomber targeted a large gathering of Shi’ite Muslims in the capital of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir on Sunday, killing five people and wounding 80 — a rare sectarian attack in an area that police said has little history of militant violence.

Muslim militants have fought for decades to free Kashmir, which is split between India and Pakistan and claimed by both, from New Delhi’s rule. But although Muzaffarabad has served as a base for anti-India insurgents to train and launch attacks, the capital — and most of the Pakistani side — has largely been spared any violence, police officer Sardar Ilyas said.

The suicide bomber detonated his explosives as police tried to search him at a checkpoint outside a commemoration of the seventh-century death of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson. The gathering attracted about 1,000 people, said police officer Tahir Qayum. The five killed included two police officers, he said.

Most of the 80 injured were Shi’ite Muslims participating in the tribute of Ashura, held every year during the Islamic holy month of Muharram. Minority Shi’ites in Pakistan are often targeted by radical Sunnis.

The bombing in Muzaffarabad highlights the growing extremism of militants in Pakistani Kashmir. Many of the armed groups in the region were started with support from Islamabad. But some of them have turned against their former patrons and joined forces with the Taliban because the government has reduced its support under U.S. pressure.

The partnership is a dangerous development for Pakistan because it could enable the Taliban to carry out attacks more easily outside its sanctuary in the country’s tribal areas in the northwest. More than 500 people have been killed in retaliatory attacks since the military launched a major anti-Taliban offensive in mid-October in the militant stronghold of South Waziristan near the Afghan border.

In one such revenge attack, three bombs planted in the house of a government official in Kurram tribal region exploded Sunday, killing him and his six family members, said police officer Naeemullah Khan.

The Pakistani government has pledged to persevere in its battle against the militants despite rising violence, but political turmoil threatens to distract the government as calls have multiplied for President Asif Ali Zardari and other senior ruling party officials to resign after a recent Supreme Court decision that struck down an amnesty protecting them from corruption charges.

Mr. Zardari lashed out at his opponents Sunday during his first public appearance since the court ruling a week and a half ago, accusing them of threatening Pakistan’s democratic system and “colluding” with extremists attacking the state.

“It is a conspiracy to weaken Pakistan,” Mr. Zardari said in a speech marking the second anniversary of the bombing death of his wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

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