Pakistani fears of Sunni-Shiite violence spark opposition to helping Saudis

People shout slogans against Saudi Arab to condemn Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, during a rally Friday, March 27, 2015, in Karachi, Pakistan.
People shout slogans against Saudi Arab to condemn Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen, during a rally Friday, March 27, 2015, in Karachi, Pakistan. AP

Prospects that Pakistan would join the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen appeared to be evaporating Friday amid widespread concern that taking sides in what’s perceived as a power struggle between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran could fuel Pakistan’s already dangerous levels of sectarian violence.

Opposition party leaders and influential commentators reacted with deep suspicion to the government’s announcement Thursday that it was considering a Saudi request to support the campaign.

Under sharp questioning Friday in Parliament, Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Mohammed Asif, said that while a decision on a Saudi request for assistance formally has been deferred until after an Arab League summit this weekend, it likely will be turned down.

“We will not take part in any conflict that could result in differences in the Muslim world, causing fault lines present in Pakistan to be disturbed, the aggravation of which would have to be borne by Pakistan,” he told Parliament.

Saudi Arabia is Pakistan’s closest ally, along with China, which is opposed to the Yemen campaign. Pakistan shares a long western border with Iran, with which it has a cordial if lukewarm relationship.

Saudi King Salman asked Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for assistance in the campaign, and it seemed likely, given that in the 1980s, Pakistan deployed thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states to avert the threat of a retaliatory Iranian attack during the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, when the Saudis and the Gulf states backed Iraq. The Saudi-owned Arabic-language satellite channel Al Arabiya on Thursday broadcast a graphic indicating Pakistan would provide naval support to the Saudi-led air campaign.

But that proposition raised worries that participating in the Yemen campaign would fuel already dangerous levels of violence between the country’s majority Sunni community and the sizable Shiite minority, which comprises 23 percent of Pakistan’s estimated population of 200 million people. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

“‘Yes’ to Saudi will stoke sectarian and terrorist fires like never before,” said Imtiaz Gul, chairman of the Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad think tank.

“It will be equal to losing all gains” of Pakistan’s ongoing counterterrorism campaigns, launched last June, in the northwest tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan and the southern city of Karachi, said Gul, who has written several books on Pakistan’s security situation.

The center reported earlier in March that 7,650 Pakistanis died in political violence in 2014, including 440 who were killed in sectarian violence. More than half of those were Shiites.

Pakistani authorities have worked hard since a December massacre by Taliban insurgents of 132 schoolchildren in the northern city of Peshawar to prevent sectarian strife, arresting hundreds of mosque imams for hateful speeches, most of them against rival sects.

Since the school bloodbath, Taliban terrorist attacks have targeted prayer congregations at Shiite mosques around the country, killing dozens and sparking protests that have remained peaceful because the government has pursued and rapidly caught the alleged perpetrators.

Pakistan’s social media networks were abuzz with opposition to any participation in the Yemen conflict – the top Twitter trends were #StopWarsInMuslimWorld, #BeUnitedMuslims and #Yemen.

Opposition to joining the anti-Houthi alliance came from political parties across the ideological spectrum, including some Sunni religious political parties closely associated with Saudi Arabia.

Imran Khan, leader of the reformist Movement for Justice Party, warned the government against joining “the U.S.-Saudi alliance” to fight in Yemen.

“Has Pakistan not suffered enough by participating in others’ wars?” he asked, rhetorically, referring to the 50,000 Pakistanis who’ve died in offensives tied to the U.S. war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We already have a huge sectarian issue in Pakistan, and our country has suffered enough in the last 10 years,” Khan said.

The usually docile opposition Pakistan People’s Party confronted Defense Minister Asif in Parliament, demanding to know if the government already had committed military support to the Saudis.

“If the situation in Pakistan deteriorates because of (participation in) the Yemen war, who will be responsible?” asked Syed Khursheed Shah, leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Asif said the only commitment given to the Saudis by Pakistan was to come to their defense in the event its territorial integrity came under threat, an implausible scenario in the context of the Yemen campaign.

He said he hoped the Arab League would spare Pakistan the need of deciding whether or not to agree to Saudi Arabia’s request, but that if a decision was required, the government would seek Parliament’s support.

The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party has a clear majority in the National Assembly, while an alliance of opposition parties controls the Senate.

“We want this issue to be resolved at a forum where the Muslim world or Arab League is involved ... division on the basis of religion or sect is rising in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Instead of conflagration ... it should be contained,” Asif said.

Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @tomthehack

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