Karachi, Pakistan--With martyrs, guns and killing sprees, Karachi is no longer simply Pakistan's biggest city and commercial capital. It is a city at war.
The two American diplomatic workers gunned down yesterday were among 164 persons killed in Karachi in the past month in a spiral of violence that is a complex swirl of political, religious, ethnic and criminal currents.
A recent attack on two mosques has pitted the city's Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim sects against each other. Most of the fighting, however, has been between the two main factions of the Muhajir Qaumi Movement, Karachi's leading political force, which represents Urdu-speaking migrants, or `muhajirs,' originally from India.
Many fear that if the two battles--one sectarian, the other ethnic--overlap, Karachi will slide toward anarchy.
Already mosques, normally symbols of peace and security, are bolted shut with steel doors, opened only long enough for worshipers to pass weapons checks. At night, the streets have mere trickles of traffic. Many residents are even talking of not celebrating the coming Muslim festival of Eid.
Day after day, in a city once renowned for its seaside tranquility and cosmopolitan night life, the killings continue, each seeming to set a new standard for senselessness.
In December, seven artisans were shot dead in their shop as they crafted lacework. The same month, on one of Karachi's main roads, seven persons were burned to death in a bus in the early evening. Last week, a passing motorist sprayed bullets in a tailor's shop, killing three persons.
Much of the city's crisis has been laid at the feet of Karachi's police force, which has been both ineffectual and, in some places, linked to criminal gangs.
Although the army ruled the streets of Karachi from 1992 to 1994 in a special operation against urban violence, it pulled out in December--and 437 persons have been killed since.
`I would advise the government to go to the extent of disarming the police,' said Nizam Haji, a local businessman who heads a liaison committee between police and civilians. `The police have gone rotten in Karachi. Totally corrupt, incompetent and politicized.'
Last month, gunmen opened fire on a crowd across the street from one of Karachi's main police stations, killing 11. Despite several police near the scene, no one fired at the assailants or gave chase. Nor have there been any arrests for the attack, although five police officers were charged with dereliction of duty.
With little law and no order, drug lords and criminal gangs also have taken to Karachi's streets, launching robberies, extortion and retribution killings.
In Pakistan's most international city, the rise of sectarian violence has raised concern about foreign involvement, perhaps even proxy battles.
Sherry Rheman, managing editor of the Herald, Pakistan's leading newsmagazine, said that Shi'ite factions in the city appear to be backed by Iran, while Sunni gunmen receive money, weapons and training from Saudi Arabia.
There also are concerns that official agencies, perhaps the government itself, has sponsored the terror. Many observers believe the army, during its rule in Karachi, armed and trained a new muhajir faction to launch a fratricidal war among the migrant population.
The new faction is now seen to be supported by the country's infamous intelligence agencies, the same bodies that backed the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s.
For any Pakistani government, support of the muhajirs is a key to political survival. With about half of Karachi's 10 million people, they hold sway over the country's biggest economic center, as well as the influential southern province of Sindh.
Despite their numbers, though, the muhajirs feel they are marginalized by Sindh's powerful rural elite, which includes the Bhutto family.
`These 2 percent of the population control 98 percent of the country,' said Shoaib Bokhari, a muhajir member of the Sindh assembly.
Mr. Bokhari did not deny the muhajir ambition for a new province of Karachi. The city now is administered by the Sindh government, and while the federal government relies heavily on Karachi and its port for tax revenue, it spends little on the thriving commercial center.
The Sindh government also keeps 15 percent of Karachi's property tax, the city's main source of revenue, as a service charge for collecting it. And the province reserves the majority of government jobs, on a quota system, for rural Sindhis, who tend to be less educated than the muhajirs.
While the muhajirs once controlled Karachi's city council, their government was dismissed in 1992. The party's top officials either were arrested or went underground, and the muhajir leader fled to London, where he lives in self-exile.
When the army withdrew from Karachi in December, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto appointed her helicopter pilot as city administrator and stacked the rest of the city council with members of her Pakistan People's Party.