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Shia-Sunni Violence Spreads in Iran

TEHRAN (IPS) -- A week after alleged Sunni militants blew up a vehicle transporting members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), killing 11 and injuring 18, sectarian tension is reported prevailing in the predominantly Sunni southeast that borders Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The car bomb attack in Zahedan, capital of the southeastern province of Sistan va Baluchistan, was attributed by Iranian officials to the Sunni militant group Jundullah (army of god) that has networks in Pakistan and is fighting to establish a unified, independent Baluchistan. It is regarded as a terrorist organisation by both Iran and Pakistan.

On Monday, Nasrollah Shanbezehi, one of four men captured soon after they set off the car bomb, was hanged at the site of the blast. Nasrollah was earlier shown on local state-run TV channels confessing to the bombing and having crossed over from Pakistan a few days before the attack on the IRGC.

Despite efforts by the Iranian government to contain the spread of religious sectarianism within the country, Jundullah has carried out several terrorist attacks in the province, including the assassination of four policemen earlier this month. It is allegedly responsible for the kidnapping and assassination of a number of clerics and officials and a bloody road massacre in Kerman province last year.

Jundullah, also called 'Popular Iranian Resistance Movement', has accepted responsibility for the attacks. In a press release dated Feb. 14 and posted on the Internet as well as in interviews with radios and satellite TV channels outside Iran, the leader of the group, Abdul Malik Rigi, said the operations were carried out in retaliation for the execution of its members by the Iranian regime.

The self-styled 24-year-old militant from Baluchistan's Rigi tribe goes by the title 'Emir Abdul Malik Baluch,' and professes peaceful methods as long as Tehran follows the same principle. "But in the face of the regime's violent response to peaceful protests, there has remained no other way than to resort to taking up arms,'' the press release said.

Following the attack, a senior security official in Zahedan said the terrorist operation had been directed "from abroad" and that arms and a powerful bomb had been recovered from a hideout raided by the police the night before the car bombing, Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported.

In his short confession, Nasrollah said he had been recruited by Jundullah only three months ago and had undergone two months of training in Pakistan under 'English-speaking' instructors. He said he had been promised a reward of around 1,000 US dollars by the group and that his only motivation was money.

The name of Jundullah, said to be a splinter of Jundullah of Pakistan, first emerged after a hostage-taking incident in the Sistan va Baluchistan province in January 2006 when militants abducted nine members of IRGC. The hostages were allegedly moved to Pakistan.

Footage aired by the Al-Arabiya satellite TV channel later showed the hostages who Jundullah said would be executed unless 16 of their members in Iranian jails were freed.

One of the hostages, an IRGC officer, was later executed by the group and the footage was offered to Al-Arabiya but the channel declined to air it. The others were later released through 'negotiations', with the government denying that it paid any ransom.

In March 2006 members of the group dressed in police uniforms attacked the motorcade of the governor of Zahedan, killing 22 members of his entourage on the spot and abducting 12 more. The governor himself was badly wounded but survived.

Hossein Ali Shahriari, who represents Zahedan in parliament, has accused Western governments of not doing enough to get Pakistan to stop allowing militant groups from operating from its territory. Shahriari accused the United States, Britain and Pakistan of assisting Jundullah to foment sectarian violence in Iran, the Aftab News Agency reported.

But Shahriari also blamed national security agencies of failing to establish security in the lawless province even after the recent attacks and suggested arming the local people and allowing them to participate in law enforcement as counter measure.

Other Iranian officials have also pointed fingers at Pakistan and 'certain' Western countries. "They entered Iran from Pakistan and have carried out their attack with full support from Western powers. They are neither Shia nor Sunni, they are dependents of arrogant powers and are equipped and supported by them," Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted a senior provincial security official as saying.

Sistan va Baluchistan straddles the main drug-trafficking route from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Europe and is among the poorest and most lawless provinces in the country. Many locals resort to drug trafficking and smuggling in order to survive. Malnutrition is at critical level among the natives and the frustrated majority Sunni population is minimally involved in government decisions.

"Frustration will naturally drive desperate locals to groups such as Rigi's as long as poverty, the main problem in the province, remains unsolved. Sectarian discrimination, no doubt, is also another contributing factor but those arrested so far mostly belong to impoverished groups in Baluchistan and have no support among Sunni intellectuals. The Iranian government bears equal responsibility. The IRGC and its militia wing (Basij) practically rule the area," a political analyst in Tehran told IPS, asking not to be identified.

"There is clearly a sectarian war going on in the Islamic world. Iraq was not the starter, but was certainly a catalyst. Scores are now being settled in places other than the main battle field and Iranian Baluchistan is one of them. There were bloody stand-offs between the regime and militant Sunnis as early in the early 1990s when al-Qaeda and Sunni extremists were becoming hugely active in Pakistan and Afghanistan,'' the analyst said.

By Kimia Sanati

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